Waiving Patent Protections for Vaccines is a Damaging and Short-Sighted Move
Biopharmaceutical companies are receiving justified praise for the rapid speed with which they produced effective vaccines against COVID-19, offering hope for a return to normalcy from a pandemic that has cost lives and damaged economies. The success of vaccine production underscores the critical importance of investments in research and development and the value those investments can bring in the future. Pfizer scientists, for example, are already exploring how the mRNA technology used to create a COVID-19 vaccine can be utilized to develop advanced treatments for cancer, HIV, and other diseases.
Thus, it’s mystifying that there is a push to discourage this kind of investment by shredding the intellectual property protections held by the vaccine makers.
The Biden Administration has done a superb job in COVID-19 vaccine distribution and administration, but it has taken a misstep on the intellectual property issue. Yesterday, the U.S. Trade Representative said that the United States would now support a move in the World Trade Organization to waive patent protections for vaccine products. India and South Africa had initiated this action, ostensibly to open the door for poorer countries to create their own generic version of vaccines.
Seeking this waiver is a move based on a false premise that vaccines are not making their way around the world. In fact, vaccine manufacturers have pledged to supply over 12 billion doses by the end of this year and working with the World Health Organization to supply doses to 90 developing countries at a discounted price. Eliminating patent protections will do less for global vaccine production and dissemination than what is already occurring. Any country seeking to make its own version would have to acquire vaccine components and the knowledge on how to manufacture the products and then generate large-scale manufacturing capabilities. This would take significant time.
The long-term harm here is to future research and development. Intellectual property protections are vital to the development of new treatments, cures and vaccines. Without those protections, there is no incentive to invest in the research cycle that can require years and billions of dollars just to get one new product through the development pipeline. The WTO move achieves limited short-term gain while risking damage that could leave the world more vulnerable to the next public health crisis.