As India suffers an overwhelming outbreak of COVID-19, and new variants emerge, vaccinating the globe becomes more and more urgent. A great deal of debate now surrounds the patents that giant pharmaceutical corporations hold on the vaccines—and on how these patents represent an obstacle to accelerating the production of the vaccines around the world. Two weeks ago, the U.S. government announced that it supported waiving patent protections, which would allow manufacturers anywhere to access the vaccine recipes. But other nations and Big Pharma representatives immediately opposed waiving intellectual property (IP) protections for the vaccines, with the outcome of the patent clash uncertain. The time spent squabbling over patents makes more pressing the question, how can we quickly make enough vaccines for the world?

According to Merrill Goozner—the author of The $800 Million Pill, a book on the pharmaceutical industry, and of GoozNews, a newsletter on the healthcare industry—patents represent only one issue bearing on this question, and the history of global vaccinations suggests multiple ways to resolve this issue. But the more daunting obstacles, Goozner says, are transferring technical expertise, and acquiring vaccine ingredients and production equipment. As Goozner sees it, taking on Big Pharma by supporting compulsory vaccine licensing signals that the Biden administration might be more willing than previous administrations to bring down enormous drug prices, even if Big Pharma still has many allies across both parties in the U.S. Congress.

Michael Bluhm: Public-health experts estimate that it will require 11 billion doses to vaccinate 70 percent of the global population, which would create herd immunity. Right now, the patents on the vaccines are the most visible obstacle to producing them on a global scale. How do we address that?

Merrill Goozner: There’s a public-health imperative that the vaccinations be distributed around the entire globe. Herd immunity in one country doesn’t work very well. You need to have global herd immunity, or variants will emerge somewhere that will spread—and they will get around the existing vaccines.

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