Up until last week, even prior Big Pharma naysayers were touting the successful development of effective COVID-19 vaccines. Within 15 months of the pandemic, not one, but three pharmaceutical companies developed and made available vaccines to lead the United States toward immunity nirvana. Now, over 250 million doses have been delivered in under five months.
Rather than congratulating Big Pharma on their tremendous efforts during a time of peril, last week President Biden held true on a controversial campaign promise doing the opposite.
Following increased scrutiny from progressive activists, the Biden administration announced its support of a plan rescinding intellectual property rights on COVID-19 vaccines, saying, "The administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections, but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for COVID-19 vaccines."
Intellectual property rights as they relate to Big Pharma often have a depraved reputation of solely trying to maximize profits, but they actually serve multiple important functions, including continued work on innovation and reducing lesser quality products from entering the market. Our addiction to lionizing does not yield much in terms of increased understanding or progress.
When one takes a big picture view of the remarkable success of the vaccination development efforts, what stands out is an array of private and public entities, from around the world, working together under the umbrella of science.
Operation Warp Speed, a public/private collaboration, generated billions at exactly the right moment, playing a crucial role in vaccine availability. But the base of the effort depended on the slow, extraordinarily laborious process of scientific research over decades, much of which was done at privately owned firms under the auspices of intellectual property rights.
It was not government spending, in and of itself, that saved us. The technology behind the vaccines was created over years of private investment on a global scale.
The United States is the global leader in pharmaceutical development, largely in part due to robust intellectual property right laws and free-market pricing.
Because of such efforts, the United States has found itself in surplus of vaccine doses, which is why the U.S. has pledged assistance to India, a place currently being hit hard by the pandemic, including at least 1 billion vaccine doses by the end of 2022. Also, vaccine manufacturers, including Moderna, Pfizer, NovaVax, AstraZeneca, and Johnson & Johnson, have promised billions of doses to Covax, the World Health Organization’s vaccine-sharing program.
As described by Peter Pitts, president and co-founder of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, the United States is the global leader in pharmaceutical development, largely in part due to robust intellectual property right laws and free-market pricing.
Rather than invest in innovation, other countries focus on price restricting medicinal imports, which pharmaceutical companies comply with as the refusal would be risking the international stripping of property rights – a la what the Biden administration just announced its support for.
The waiver of property rights is a long-sought political goal but does more virtue-signaling than provide immediate tangible help for struggling nations. Without providing the personnel and other resources necessary, it will do little to help struggling nations develop, manufacture and distribute the vaccines. It is like handing someone a recipe book without the ingredients or utensils to make the dish.
Rather than strip private entities of their intellectual property rights, wealthy governments can continue to donate unused vaccine doses and supplies while pharmaceutical companies consider donating vaccines or selling them at reduced prices, as they customarily do.
Maybe we need to rethink the inherently pejorative notion of "Big Pharma" itself. Perhaps it is not a malevolent engine of profit-making, but a collection of diverse entities and actors. And maybe profit-making and protection of intellectual property rights – properly understood – play a crucial, though not a solitary role, in driving innovation.
While it is unlikely anything immediate will come from the WTO discussions, ignoring protection waivers can set a dangerous precedent. Once we start chipping away at intellectual property rights, there is no turning back on this slippery slope.