One year ago, we were living in lockdown. Today, more than half of all adults in America have had at least one shot against COVID-19. Globally, coronavirus inoculations have saved millions of lives and will save tens of millions more. They’re also getting us out of the house, helping us return to some semblance of normalcy.
Drug companies developed the new vaccines with impressive speed, thanks to years of research and billions in private financing. And the system that gave us these shots depends entirely on strong intellectual property rights. These same protections will be critical when we face the next pandemic. But unfortunately, they may not be there if India and South Africa get their way.
The World Trade Organization is considering a petition from India and South Africa to waive intellectual property rights globally for COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. Together with the United Kingdom, the European Union, Switzerland, Japan, and a handful of other countries, the United States has thus far opposed the move. But the White House is under pressure to change its position. Last week, more than 170 former heads of state and Nobel laureates called on President Biden to endorse the petition. Supported by about 100 countries, the petition asserts that patents are blocking access to vaccines. But the barriers they say they’re worried about have already been removed — and there’s no evidence that stripping patent rights would do anything to increase vaccine access.
Consider the licensing and distribution agreements we’ve seen thus far. AstraZeneca licensed its COVID-19 vaccine to the Serum Institute of India to hasten production for low- and middle-income countries. Johnson & Johnson promised to allocate up to half a billion doses to low-income countries, largely on a nonprofit basis. And the patent-holders of the three US-approved vaccines — Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, and Pfizer-BioNTech — have licensed their intellectual property at no cost. These and other collaborative deals are speeding vaccine deployment, and they wouldn’t be possible without intellectual property rights. Companies don’t share know-how if their innovations can be copied without consequence.
The campaign to gut patents also seems to ignore the highly successful COVAX program, co-led by the World Health Organization, through which other organizations, drug companies, and governments, including the United States, are cooperating to distribute doses across the world. Thus far, COVAX has shipped 31 million doses to 60 nations.
The main obstacles to getting shots into arms have nothing to do with intellectual property. For instance, the United States and other countries have stockpiled doses. Releasing these stores would help alleviate the current shortage.
So-called last-mile delivery is also a challenge, given that some COVID-19 vaccines require ultra-cold storage. Suspending patents would accomplish nothing in regions that don’t have robust electricity and industrial freezers.
The biggest hurdle is manufacturing. Vaccine factories worldwide are running at capacity. “It just takes time to scale up,” Serum Institute chief executive Adar Poonawalla recently told The Guardian. As philanthropist Bill Gates, whose Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has committed more than $150 million to COVID-19 vaccines, told a New York Times podcast, “No free IP would have improved anything related to this pandemic.”
Meanwhile, suspending intellectual property rights could have a devastating downside. Pharmaceutical research is a tremendous gamble. Most efforts to develop medicines never come to fruition, despite billions of dollars invested over many years. Fewer than 10 percent of the candidate medicines that enter clinical trials receive FDA approval. Intellectual property protections — which assure inventors they’ll have sole right to their creations for a set period of time — offer a chance at a reward in the face of all that risk. By preserving that chance, these rights keep investment into drug research flowing.
Two of our most effective COVID-19 vaccines, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, are based on advances in messenger RNA. The same technology now holds huge promise for preventing other diseases, as well as for treating cancer and multiple sclerosis. But scientists cannot make these breakthroughs without sustained investment, which waiving patent rights would undermine.
In fact, the main winners from a patent-rights suspension wouldn’t be unvaccinated individuals. They would be profit-making companies abroad, especially in hubs of generic drug manufacturing like India, South Africa, and China. The fact that New Delhi and Pretoria filed their WTO petition before any vaccines were even approved, well before evidence of a shortage, underlines the commercial nature of their effort.
Big producers of generic pharmaceuticals would love to shift their focus to innovative, higher-margin drugs covered by patents. And with deep wells of scientific talent in places like India and China, that’s an achievable goal. But appropriating trade secrets — earned through years of investment and research — is not the way to get there. Forcing Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer-BioNTech, and Moderna to turn over hard-won knowledge would eventually harm innovation everywhere.
Health experts at Duke University estimate that 70 percent of the world’s population could be vaccinated by the end of this year. Let’s not mark this extraordinary achievement by tearing up the system that made it possible. We’re beating this pandemic, but we’re going to need intellectual property rights to fight the next one too.
Dr. Michael Rosenblatt is a senior partner at Flagship Pioneering, the former chief medical officer of Merck, and the former dean of Tufts Medical School. He serves as an adviser to Moderna.