With the pandemic still raging, does it make sense to enforce patents on COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics?
That’s the question many activists — and even some governments — are posing to powerful policymakers. A few weeks ago, the World Trade Organization considered a petition from South Africa and India that, if adopted, would allow countries to ignore intellectual property (IP) protections on all things COVID-19.
Doctors Without Borders has endorsed the proposal – and several congressional Democrats are pushing the Biden administration to support it, too.
Luckily, the United States joined the European Union and other countries in blocking the proposal. But the WTO has agreed to revisit the issue. IP protections aren’t a luxury that can be discarded during times of emergency. They are an integral tool for spurring medical innovation.
Nullifying drug patents wouldn’t just undermine the pandemic response effort — it would leave the world dangerously unprepared for future global health crises.
In petitioning the WTO, South Africa and India have portrayed patents as an impediment to vaccine access. But the opposite is true. Were it not for robust IP protections, the current slate of COVID-19 inoculations and treatments would have never been invented in the first place. After all, the vaccines created by Moderna and Pfizer didn’t come from nowhere. They were the product of a drug-development ecosystem that has taken shape over decades.
That ecosystem is literally built on IP protections.
To understand why, just consider the expense, risk, and complexity of drug development. The typical drug takes 10 or more years – and more than $2.5 billion – to make it from lab to market. The vast majority of medicines pursued by drug companies prove dead ends.
Despite these risks, biotech ventures continue to attract investors. IP explains why.
Specifically, intellectual property rights provide the necessary predictability and certainty for innovators to research, develop, and ultimately deliver new treatments, vaccines, and cures to patients. IP gives firms the ability to collaborate with and increase competition among innovators, thereby increasing the number of new medicines.
This arrangement has proven astoundingly well at promoting cutting-edge research. Right now, in fact, pharmaceutical companies around the world are pursuing 8,000 new cures and treatments for diseases like Alzheimer’s, cancer, and diabetes. This is not to mention the dozens of additional COVID-19 vaccines in the works.
Since innovation is rarely foreseeable or linear, those behind COVID-19 vaccines are hopeful the discoveries they’ve made along the way will lead to future applications that prove lucrative. But that will only happen if IP remains protected. Such optimism should be celebrated, not penalized
Simply put, IP protections have given rise to a vibrant market in which bioscience firms — along with the investors who fund them and the scientists who work at them — are rewarded for medical innovation.
Without this basic infrastructure, researchers would have never been able to deliver COVID-19 vaccines just months after the disease was first identified.
That’s why throwing away IP protections in the name of improving access to COVID-19 vaccines makes no sense. It’s also why, thus far, the United States — as well as the European Union, Canada, the United Kingdom, Japan, and Switzerland — have opposed the petition from South Africa and India.
The Democrats who are now urging President Joe Biden to support the waiver may be well-intentioned. But if he follows their advice, he would be casting serious doubt on the reliability of IP protections. This, in turn, would make investors far less eager to risk their money developing new treatments and cures.
The pandemic has demonstrated why the world can’t afford to take continued pharmaceutical innovation for granted. Now more than ever, the system that enabled the rapid response to COVID-19 needs to be preserved and even strengthened. By continuing to reject South Africa and India’s waiver request, the global community can help make sure that the arduous task of curing disease is no more difficult than it has to be.