When you've made a wrong turn, pushing ahead only takes you further from your destination. It's a lesson that's apparently lost on many officials at the World Trade Organization, who are continuing to entertain a proposal to invalidate intellectual property protections on COVID-19 vaccines, long after it has become obvious that these legal safeguards aren't to blame for the low vaccination rate in many countries.

Let's back up. In the fall of 2020, a group of countries led by India and South Africa petitioned World Trade Organization members to waive intellectual property rights on all COVID-related technology.

The petitioners feared the U.S. would invent vaccines first -- and then hoard its supplies or charge extortionate prices to foreign buyers. India and South Africa said they could solve this theoretical problem by forcing companies to hand over their patents and trade secrets, giving up the longstanding, internationally agreed IP rights that undergird so much global trade.

It wasn't a convincing argument, but, panicked by the pandemic, some gave it the benefit of the doubt. Today, though, it has been utterly debunked by actual events.

As expected, companies in the U.S. developed some of the first and most effective inoculations. But fears of hoarding proved unwarranted. To date, more than 8.5 billion doses have been administered around the world. Well-off countries have donated vast numbers, either directly or through the global distribution organization Covax. The U.S. has already sent more than 300 million donated doses abroad and committed to sending a total of at least 1.1 billion.  

Not only have fears of a vaccine shortage not come true, analysts actually expect a glut of doses by next summer. Total global production of vaccine doses this year is projected to top 12 billion -- meaning we have enough capacity to meet demand even as new variants emerge. And following the World Health Organization's recent emergency use authorization of Novavax's COVID-19 vaccine — which is 90% effective — we'll soon have millions more doses available for distribution worldwide, thanks to manufacturing efforts by the Serum Institute of India.

In this context, the idea of waiving IP rights makes less sense every day. And doing so would have serious downsides: Strong IP protections ensure long-term investment in pharmaceuticals and many other industries. 

Yet some countries and organizations continue to press their case at the WTO -- and the Biden administration unfortunately still says it supports an IP waiver. Keeping this debate alive distracts from strategies that would actually deliver more jabs, at a time when we urgently need to solve distribution problems. While 58% of the global population has received at least one shot, rates vary wildly by region. In the Americas, at least 70% of the population has received at least one dose, while in the Middle East that figure is 49% and in Africa, just 12%.

Much of the problem comes down to a lack of infrastructure. 

Moderna's CEO Stephane Bancel recently reported that 70 million doses of the company's vaccine were sitting in warehouses because destination countries could not receive, refrigerate, or distribute them. Covax reports that half the world's poorest countries have used less than 75% of the vaccines they have received. South Africa halted the importation of Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer vaccines because of excess supply, even though it has fully vaccinated only a quarter of its population.

As Isabelle Defourny, Director of Operations for Doctors Without Borders, wrote last month, vaccine coverage in some of the worst-hit developing countries is impeded by "the lack of a functioning healthcare system; insecurity linked to conflict; and the rejection of vaccines by some people."

There are things the U.S., other donor countries, and organizations like Covax can do to accelerate distribution. For example, donors need to make sure that doses arrive in countries well before their expiration dates. They need to provide recipient governments with predictable schedules, including details of what types to expect, as different vaccines have different storage and dosage requirements.

Many recipient countries also need funding to construct permanent vaccine centers with fully trained staff, as well as help with testing and treatment.

These are real challenges, to be sure. But none will be solved by the continued effort to gut IP rights. It's time to move on from an argument the facts have rendered moot, and focus on tactics that will actually help defeat the pandemic.

Joe Crowley represented New York's 7th and 14th congressional districts from 1999 to 2019.