Written by: Associate Editor, Aaron Strom
On the week of February 16, 2021, it was reported that North Korean hackers attempted to obtain the COVID-19 vaccine information from Pfizer. South Korea’s National Intelligence Service informed lawmakers that the hack was an attempt to obtain both the vaccine and the treatment technology currently protected by intellectual property law. North Korean access to medical tools and equipment necessary for vaccine distribution has been arduous because of sanctions that were adopted against the country limiting the importation of computers and other metal products. North Korea has urgently requested access to COVID-19 vaccines and is set to receive 2 million for their population of 26 million. North Korea’s recent cyber-attacks are not the first, but are a part of a series of hacks that the country has performed over the last year in order to obtain the life saving vaccine.
Last October India and South Africa, supported by over 100 other countries including China, submitted a proposal to the World Trade Organization that would have exempted member countries from enforcing trade-related intellectual property rights in regards to the COVID-19 Vaccine. The proposal was immediately blocked by the United States and its allies, all of which believe that protecting the intellectual property rights of the vaccine will facilitate its swift delivery. Which may be true for countries like the US that can afford a $2 billion deal but does not help countries that cannot affords such luxury. The proposal to lift the TRIPS protections was resubmitted in November and December of 2020. Even though the creation of the Pfizer vaccine was almost entirely funded by tax payer dollars, the proposal was again shot down by the US and its European allies.
The bigger picture of this crisis is that countries who should have access to the vaccine even with the continuation of the TRIPS are being hard balled by Pfizer. Last summer during negotiations for a vaccine deal Argentina and Brazil were both stone walled by the pharmaceutical giant. The demands by Pfizer went as far as asking for government buildings as collateral and absolute protection from any civil lawsuit by the country’s citizens. These Latin America nations were left to deal with other companies who do not have fully developed vaccines and limited to the vaccines Russia could spare.
In a world of 7.8 billion people Pfizer only has 2 billion doses to sell for 2021, and they will prioritize profit over necessity. That is the reality of the profit model kept in place by the TRIPS protections of the WTO. Therefore, if countries that are members of the WTO are having such difficulty getting access to the limited vaccine, the situation is even more dire for a country like North Korea. We must reconsider the importance of protecting the intellectual property of the vaccine, and ask the question: What is more important? Pharmaceutical’s profits or human necessity?
Forbes – Report: North Korean Hackers Tried To Steal Covid-19 Vaccine Tech from Pfizer – February 16, 2021, available at https://www.forbes.com/sites/roberthart/2021/02/16/report-north-korean-hackers-tried-to-steal-covid-19-vaccine-tech-from-pfizer/?sh=5d692b344102
Harvard Gazette – COVID vaccine race leaders likely won’t be only ones too reap huge payday – December 17, 2020, available at https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2020/12/pfizer-and-moderna-wont-be-the-only-ones-to-reap-huge-payday/
In the Set Times – Pfizer Helped Create the Global Patent Rules. Now it’s Using Them to Undercut Access to the Covid Vaccine – December 17, 2020, available at https://inthesetimes.com/article/pfizer-covid-vaccine-world-trade-oganization-intellectual-property-patent-access-medicines
New York Times – Want Vaccines Fast? Suspend Intellectual Property Rights – December 7, 2020, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/07/opinion/covid-vaccines-patents.html
Reuters – Pfizer, U.S. strike 100 million COVID-19 vaccine deal with 70 million due by June – December 23, 2020, available at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-usa-pfizer/pfizer-u-s-strike-100-million-covid-19-vaccine-deal-with-70-million-due-by-june-idUSKBN28X1GC
STAT – ‘Held to ransom’: Pfizer plays hardball in Covid-19 vaccine negotiations with Latin American countries – February 23, 2021, available at https://www.statnews.com/2021/02/23/pfizer-plays-hardball-in-covid19-vaccine-negotiations-in-latin-america/
Wall Street Journal – North Korea Requests Covid-19 Vaccines From Global Group – January 4, 2021, available at https://www.wsj.com/articles/north-korea-requests-covid-19-vaccines-from-global-group-11609756202
Washington Post – North Korea tried to steal Pfizer coronavirus vaccine information, South says – February 16, 2021, available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/north-korea-pfizer-coronavirus-vaccine-hack/2021/02/16/c09ec7fc-702e-11eb-8651-6d3091eac63f_story.html
World Trade Organization – Waiver From Certain Provisions of the TRIPS Agreement for the Prevention, Containment and Treatment of COVID-19 – October 2, 2020, available at https://docs.wto.org/dol2fe/Pages/SS/directdoc.aspx?filename=q:/IP/C/W669.pdf&Open=True