Intellectual property protections help keep the world safe. Getting a drug successfully to market can cost billions of dollars and take several years of scientific toil. Blood, sweat, tears – and money. Fewer than one in 10 products that enter clinical trials are ever greenlit by the FDA. If those that succeed are stripped of proprietary protection, few investors would risk their money in pharmaceutical research and development.
And yet, the very safeguards that made it possible for Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson to give us lifesaving vaccines are now threatened by our own, well-meaning government.
On May 5, the Biden administration announced that it would back a proposal at the World Trade Organization to waive all IP protection on the Covid-19 vaccines. Soon, these companies could find their painstaking research in the hands of governments who would be profiting from the work of our scientists. Among these governments is China, America's most fervent competitor, which has made no secret of its own ambitions to dominate the biotech sector.
The WTO proposal was submitted in September 2020 by India and South Africa, and has garnered the support of more than 100 countries and countless nongovernmental organizations. That it was made three months before vaccines were authorized suggests it was a kind of preemptive strike. After resisting pressure for many months, the U.S. succumbed and offered support to the waiver.
With respect, I believe the administration made the wrong call and with no good progressive outcome or policy reason. The policy error of stripping IP protection from our biotech companies is compounded by the fact that the waiver will not increase the production of vaccines by a single dose. Every facility in the world that can safely make the vaccines is already running at full capacity. Nowhere else is there the ability to fabricate these complex vaccines.
The U.S. has committed to donating 500 million additional doses, along with 80 million previously announced doses the U.S. intends to share globally by the end of 2021. The U.S. commitment is part of the recent pledge by G-7 leaders to donate 1 billion Covid-19 vaccine doses to low-income nations.
That, surely, is the better way to help the world. As are the calls being made that rich countries pay for the vaccines that would go to the vaccine-deprived. Let the governments of the West and Japan perform this service to humanity. That way, we can help protect those in crying need of vaccines without beggaring our own medicine-makers.
Kenneth E. Thorpe is a professor of health policy at Emory University and chairman of the Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease.