With a Covid-19 vaccine patent waiver likely, time to rethink global intellectual property rules

Updated 1136 GMT (1936 HKT) May 7, 2021

Ruth L. Okediji is the Jeremiah Smith Jr. Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. The views expressed in this commentary belong solely to the author. Read more from As Equals. For information about how the series is funded and more, check out our FAQs.

On Wednesday May 5, the US moved to back a Covid-19 vaccine patent waiver that was being debated at the World Trade Organization (WTO).
The proposal, first put forward by South Africa and India in October 2020, seeks to temporarily lift certain intellectual property rights that belong to pharmaceutical companies so that other nations can develop generic versions of the drugs.
As awareness of vaccine inequality has grown, patents and other types of intellectual property have become central to how the world emerges from the pandemic.
Ironically, the patent system was supposed to improve public welfare. Here's how the rationale goes: in return for disclosing her invention -- i.e. by seeking a patent -- an inventor would be able to, among other things, exclusively make, use, and sell that patented product for 20 years. This would -- as the US Constitution puts it --