Intellectual Property in a Time of Pandemic: The COVID-19 Vaccines

By Ken Shotts, Sheila Melvin
2021 | Case No. ETH33 | Length 18 pgs.

The effort to develop a vaccine for COVID-19 was underway in January 2020, months before the world would experience the full impact of the virus. By the end of April 2020, worldwide cases had passed 3 million, including 1 million cases in the United States, and social and economic life had ground to a halt, causing untold hardships for billions of people around the world. Hope for a way out of the pandemic focused on rapid development, testing, and deployment of a vaccine.

As it happened, multiple safe and highly effective vaccines were developed in record time—within one year, as opposed to the decade or longer timeframe typical for most vaccines. This was a spectacular and unprecedented achievement that built on years of scientific research. By the end of 2020, more than 220 COVID-19 vaccines were in development around the world, with 56 of these vaccines in human trials. But ramping up production and determining how to allocate and distribute scarce supplies of vaccines was expected to be a major challenge for companies, governments, and societies.

This case focuses on one aspect of this process: sharing of intellectual property for vaccines.

Learning Objective

This case covers ethical, strategic, and public policy issues in intellectual property, focusing on controversies over global access to Covid-19 vaccines during 2020-21. The case raises issues of fairness, consequences for public health, and the effects of incentives for innovation.

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