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Waiving Vaccine Patents Would Imperil Public Health
Researchers at the UW Medicine Retrovirology Lab at Harborview Medical Center work on samples from the Novavax phase 3 Covid-19 clinical vaccine trials on February 12, 2021 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images)
(Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images)

Waiving Vaccine Patents Would Imperil Public Health

Adam Mossoff

The most far-reaching healthcare policy decision of 2021 won’t be made in Congress or the White House. It will be made at the World Trade Organization, which is considering a petition to waive all patent rights on COVID-19 vaccines.

If the petition is approved, Pfizer, Moderna and dozens of other companies that raced to develop inoculations will be stripped of their intellectual property protections. The fruits of their productive labors, including massive financial investments made before and after the pandemic was officially declared a year ago, will be expropriated. They’ll be forced to hand over hard-won knowledge to companies that didn’t invest time or money into creating vaccines.

Supporters of the patent waiver — some U.S. lawmakers among them — say it will somehow speed up global vaccine distribution. There is zero evidence to support this claim. A Government Accountability Office report published in February found vaccine distribution was held up by manufacturing bottlenecks, supply chain issues and lack of a skilled workforce. One factor noticeably absent in the GAO report on vaccine delays: patents.

It is no surprise that India and South Africa are leading the waiver petition. India is known as the “pharmacy of the world” given its massive generic drug industry, which would profit even more handsomely from “free” access to cutting-edge medical patents it didn’t create. South Africa is also a major producer of generic drugs.

It is unsurprising that countries that lead in biopharmaceutical research and development, such as the United States, Great Britain, Switzerland and the European Union, oppose the patent waiver petition. Their robust intellectual property rights support thriving industries and have fueled countless medical breakthroughs that have saved millions of lives over the decades.

Unfortunately, leading congressional Democrats have sided with India and South Africa, and are lobbying President Joe Biden to do the same. Anti-patent activists hope that if they can turn the U.S. government, this will influence other members of the WTO, which decides by consensus, to join their side.

The current patent system is a roaring success. Before 2020, no vaccine had ever been developed from start to finish in under four years. In response to COVID-19, companies developed, tested and delivered shots in less than 12 months.

This medical miracle was made possible by decades of previous research at pharmaceutical companies supported by strong patent laws. By securing reliable property rights in the fruits of their innovative labors, drug companies built a massive foundation of technical knowledge, research infrastructure and, even more importantly, commercial agreements.

These patents facilitated substantial commercial collaboration. This continued through the COVID-19 pandemic with Novartis and Sanofi making Pfizer-BioNTech inoculations, Merck producing on behalf of Johnson & Johnson, and AstraZeneca entering a licensing deal with the Serum Institute of India. Drug developers wouldn’t share their savvy without patent protections.

Yet Democrats in Congress are pressuring the White House to back the patent waiver petition, using stale populist rhetoric. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont delivered a video message in which he said, “We need a people’s vaccine, not a profit vaccine.”

Hundreds of millions of people are vaccinated, thanks to patents. Sanders fails to understand that without patents, there would simply be no vaccine.

Cancer and heart disease remain the leading causes of death in the United States. Alzheimer’s disease hasn’t gone anywhere. And we are bound to face another viral pandemic in our lifetimes.

The only things standing between patients and new cures are the time, labor, and resources scientists need to discover them. That R&D costs hundreds of billions of dollars. In 2018, private industry investments in new drug development were $129.5 billion.

Without property rights securing the fruits of these high-risk, high-cost labors, medical miracles won’t happen.

Read in The Virginian-Pilot

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