International Technology Transfer to Promote Access and Innovation in a Pandemic
How can we promote more manufacturing of and access to COVID-19 vaccines in developing countries to address the current crisis? Banner image: Shutterstock/Mongkolchon Akesin
This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.
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Following a proposal presented by South Africa and India, one of the most controversial discussions at the World Trade Organisation in recent months has been a patent waiver on COVID-19 vaccines and treatments during the pandemic. Supporters say this would allow vaccines and treatments recipes to be shared freely and, consequently, would promote more manufacturing and access to essential products to address the current crisis.
However, the problem that is facing the world goes far deeper than access to patents. This is because R&D capabilities are concentrated in developed countries, and the manufacturing capacity in developing countries that exists, especially for the new generation of mRNA vaccines, is limited. Therefore, the current situation is perpetuating the supply-dependency model currently followed by developed and developing countries.
In this context, initiatives based only on patent waivers of COVID-19 vaccines, treatment and diagnosis technologies would probably not be enough to have a significant impact on access to healthcare products in developing countries.
Read more on the Forum Network: "Closing vaccine borders provide a false sense of security. Enabling global flows allows vaccine supply chains to deliver more vaccines to all" by Prashant Yadav, Professor, INSAED & Jan C. Fransoo, Professor, Tilburg University
In the current pandemic, making patent information, patent pools or compulsory licensing available does not deliver long-term results because they are not usually sufficient to reproduce the technology. Being able to read patent information is not technology transfer. On the other hand, these mechanisms do not give the appropriate incentives for patent owners to transfer the technology in an effective way.
The magnitude of the actual crisis requires a different—and long-term—approach to deal with current and future crises in a more sustainable way, by enhancing R&D and technological and manufacturing capabilities in developing countries. Such an approach would allow not only access to essential technologies but also enable the development of indigenous capabilities.
Indigenous development responds to an urgent problem, but it may also produce economic stimulus for developing countries. For example, this was part of the development strategy implemented in South Korea. One of its most crucial aspects was the use of turnkey contracts in specific technology areas using technology licences, allowing the Koreans to create local capabilities. In short, the Koreans said that, “if you are going to build a factory in our country in a critical technology field, you have to teach and enable us to build our own capabilities in that field”. Technological mastery is critical to the achievement of self-sustaining development; licensing agreements and direct foreign investment in the initial acquisition of technology are more effective channels to acquire these skills.
Read the report: "Access to COVID-19 vaccines: Global approaches in a global crisis" and visit the OECD's COVID-19 Hub to browse hundreds of others policy responses
In this context, and as many collaborative initiatives emerge, international organisations (IOs) may play an important role encouraging international technology transfer (ITT) to developing countries, especially in times of crisis. During the pandemic, IOs have had a key role as global R&D project managers and product/information suppliers. Additionally, they have a general mandate according to Sustainable Development Goal 9 to foster innovation, industry and infrastructure, and to promote inclusive and sustainable industrialisation at the international level.
Consequently, projects led by IOs should incorporate ITT components, observing not only the country's necessities but also their capabilities. At the same time, they should also provide useful information and guidelines about partnerships between agencies and firms in acquiring technologies and the terms involved. For example, royalty rates and balanced contracts that enable sharing of foreground IP and ownership of future developments would foster local absorption and create win-win situations.
As stated by the new WTO Director General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, international technology transfer is the third way to broaden sustainable access to healthcare products within the framework of multilateral rules. The recent programme promoted by the World Health Organization and its partners, COVID-19 mRNA vaccine technology transfer hub to scale up global manufacturing, is in the same vein. These types of initiatives could transform the way that international collaboration has worked until now, encouraging real social and economic development in middle- and low-income countries.
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