Frequently asked questions about the TRIPS waiver proposal


Why is Switzerland rejecting the TRIPS waiver proposal?

  • Switzerland is of the view that suspending the WTO/TRIPS Agreement, the established international legal framework for the protection of IP rights, would be the wrong approach.
  • Switzerland is committed to ensuring affordable and equitable and rapid global access to vaccines, medicines and diagnostics against COVID-19.
  • To achieve this goal, the world needs rapidly effective and safe treatments in large quantities.
  • This requires close collaboration between numerous stakeholders. Both government-funded and private companies have to invest a lot of time and money into research and development and, in turn, the necessary risk capital must be available. It also requires an internationally applicable framework that regulates the rights and obligations relating to research results. The TRIPS Agreement of the World Trade Organization (WTO) provides this framework.
  • If the TRIPS Agreement were suspended, the WTO rules on patent protection (and its exceptions), in force for over 25 years and implemented by 164 states, would no longer apply. This would result in significant international legal uncertainty for the stakeholders that are currently working together on the further development and mass production of the new vaccines against COVID-19.

What would be the long-term effects of a temporary suspension of patent protection?

  • The TRIPS waiver proposal risks undermining the common goal of joining forces to ensure affordable and equitable access to vaccines, medicines and diagnostics against COVID-19 at international level as quickly as possible.
  • COVID-19 will probably not be the last pandemic. If it were now signalled that the current international framework will be simply suspended in crisis situations, it could have serious implications for the future research and development activities of private companies, which are also important for the health challenges and diseases of the future. That would not be in the interest of Switzerland, nor of any other country, including the poorer ones. This is because the research and development of innovative medical products in the pandemic field remains of great importance for responding to the current, but also future pandemics.
  • Finally, temporarily suspending the international legal framework would also send a problematic signal to the international community. How can countries tackle global challenges, such as climate change, poverty reduction or migration, together if there is a danger that the rules accepted by all will be abandoned by individual member states in the event of a crisis? Instead of pulling together, there could be a situation where everyone does their own thing. And that it is not in the interest of Switzerland or other countries.

What happens after the patent protection of a particular health technology expires?


If patent protection has expired, third parties can freely bring ‘identical’ follow-on products (generics or biosimilars) to the market.


What are the obstacles in the current global vaccine supply?


The reason for the current shortage of vaccines is not patent protection, but primarily – given the huge global demand – the limited production capacities and extremely scarce time available to build these capacities. The construction and operation of a vaccine production facility costs around 1.5 billion US Dollars, which the patent owners must pre-finance without knowing what the results of the clinical trials will be. It therefore involves risky investments. Even facilities in developing countries such as India cost only slightly less.


Would the suspension of international patent protection not enable many generic manufacturers worldwide to copy the new vaccines and therefore solve the current supply shortage?


Removing patents would not mean that the necessary vaccines would be produced more quickly. Vaccines, especially new biotech technologies, are highly complex and their path from the laboratory to mass production is a demanding and sensitive process.  In practice, these vaccines cannot be easily imitated by other companies or produced rapidly with the required quality and efficacy. The know-how needed for this does not come with a waiver of patent protection. Instead, it requires close exchange and technology transfer by means of licensing agreements between the companies that made the underlying invention and potential manufacturing companies. Suspending patent protection would call this important cooperation into question.


But do patents not create monopolies?


No. A patent simply (but nonetheless) allows the patent owner to prohibit others from using their invention commercially during the 20-year fixed duration of protection or to permit its use only with their consent (e.g. via a licensing agreement.) The COVID-19 pandemic proves that a patent does not equal a monopoly. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, on the basis of prior research, several new vaccines were developed within a year and brought to the market (including vaccines developed by Pfizer-Biontech, Oxford University & Astra-Zeneca, Moderna, Sputnik V, Sinopharm, Novavax etc.)


Do patents not drastically increase the prices of vaccines?


It is important to keep patents and prices separate. As mentioned in the previous answer, a patent simply gives the owner the right to prohibit others from using their invention commercially. It does not, however, permit the owner to ask for a certain price for it. In Switzerland, for example, the prices of new and patented medicines are also negotiated between the manufacturers and the Federal Office of Public Health and are set out in a ‘specialties list’.


How is Switzerland participating in the fight against COVID-19?

  • Switzerland supports international institutions under the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT Accelerator) and participates in its COVAX Facility, in particular. Its aim is to accelerate the development and production of COVID-19 vaccines and to guarantee fair and equitable access for every country in the world.
  • In addition, Switzerland is involved in the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI). This is a global alliance of states, international organisations, research institutions, the vaccine industry and private investors. The aim is to build a network for the research and development of new vaccines against new viral infections such as COVID-19.
  • Finally, Switzerland supports Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance – a globally active public-private partnership headquarted in Geneva. Its goal is to improve access to vaccines against preventable life-threatening diseases for children in poorer countries.
  • Switzerland is also strongly committed to the worldwide fight against COVID-19. It has allocated a total of 400 million Swiss francs as part of a supplementary credit to support various international initiatives to respond to the pandemic and its economic and social effects.

Should research financed by the general public not belong to the general public and do pharmaceutical companies not siphon this off for their own profit?

  • It is true that much basic research is carried out at universities, but by no means exclusively – academic and private research give each other important incentives. For example, in 2017, over one quarter of companies’ own research expenditure was invested in basic research.
  • The private sector possesses the necessary know-how and the most experience to use knowledge gained from basic research to develop a tangibly useful product such as a medicine, a diagnostic or a vaccine, as well as to test its efficacy and safety and approve it for the market. In other words, to manufacture a marketable, effective medicine or vaccine. In this way, public sector investment in basic research is made tangibly useful to the general public.
  • Patents are not a privilege of private companies. Universities and public research institutes also file patents for inventions that arise from their basic research. On the basis of these patents, they can work with pharmaceutical companies and negotiate licensing conditions and appropriate financial compensation. For example, the University of Pennsylvania and the American National Institute of Health granted licences to Moderna and Biontech in the field of mRNA technology.