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What Cake Baking Can Teach Us About Vaccine Production


Have you followed this big debate about COVID vaccines and intellectual property rights over them? A lot of lives seem to be at stake, and the United States recently backed calls by South Africa and India to waive intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines. The question now is will this actually help vaccinate the world? Darian Woods and Stacey Vanek Smith over at The Indicator from NPR's Planet Money indicate what baking a cake can teach us about the global vaccination production.

DARIAN WOODS, BYLINE: To really understand whether removing intellectual property rights might help in vaccinating the world against COVID, we talked to economist Petra Moser.

PETRA MOSER: The patent document is not a cookbook.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Petra is a professor at NYU.

MOSER: The patent document is a legal contract that gives you the right to exclude others, and as the patent owner, you want to disclose as little as possible.

VANEK SMITH: And, Petra says, even if you do disclose all the information, there will still be a problem.

MOSER: If I explain to you, here, I'm making this great chocolate cake, and I write it down for you - probably not going to be able to replicate it.

WOODS: OK. Stacey, we're going to show what it would be like to have kind of an amateur like me take on your cake patent.

VANEK SMITH: And the cake patent in this case is one of my very favorite gluten-free chocolate cake recipes, which I have given you and you're going to try to make.


WOODS: Got the confectioner's sugar, gluten-free flour, a lot of chocolate.

VANEK SMITH: But you know, Darian, all the ingredients that are supposed to be in the cake I included. I did not omit any ingredients. I did omit some details.

WOODS: OK. So this is kind of like a patent.


WOODS: It's got the components part of this invention, but the bare legal minimum that you can get away with.


ADRIAN HILL: It's not like baking a cake.

WOODS: This is Adrian Hill, a vaccinologist and director of the Jenner Institute at the University of Oxford.

HILL: Let's put it this way. If it were a cake, you'd do 42 tests on the cake to ensure that your cake was baked exactly the same way as everyone else's cake.

VANEK SMITH: Early in 2020, he and his team at Oxford developed a promising vaccine with the drug company AstraZeneca. Around that time, they realized they needed a manufacturing partner who could produce this on a huge scale, hundreds of millions of doses, so Adrian met with a vaccine manufacturing company called the Serum Institute of India.

WOODS: They licensed this Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to the Serum Institute, and licensing here means the Serum Institute could use the recipe for the vaccine and make and sell their own brand of it.

VANEK SMITH: But they had to teach the Serum Institute of India how to make it, and this is where the debate on vaccine patents comes in.

HILL: It's pointless having no patents if you have insufficient manufacturing capacity. Training, training, training - that's what we need for the next year.

WOODS: And Adrian says a vaccine patent free-for-all could make the vaccine shortage worse.

HILL: We're running out of all the key components, so if you get rid of the patents and lots of people set up shop independently and start buying those components, hoping they can make the vaccine, that's going to make another problem much worse, which is access to the ingredients.

VANEK SMITH: Speaking of which, we need to check back in on your cake. How did it turn out?

WOODS: Crumbly and dry on the outside, liquidy and uncooked on the inside.

VANEK SMITH: Oh. I'm sorry, Darian.

WOODS: I'm still going to eat it.

Darian Woods.

VANEK SMITH: Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIDNEY TORCH'S "SNOW BELL POLKA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money. She's also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. In this role, Smith has followed economic stories down the muddy back roads of Oklahoma to buy 100 barrels of oil; she's traveled to Pune, India, to track down the man who pitched the country's dramatic currency devaluation to the prime minister; and she's spoken with a North Korean woman who made a small fortune smuggling artificial sweetener in from China.
Darian Woods is a reporter and producer for The Indicator from Planet Money. He blends economics, journalism, and an ear for audio to tell stories that explain the global economy. He's reported on the time the world got together and solved a climate crisis, vaccine intellectual property explained through cake baking, and how Kit Kat bars reveal hidden economic forces.