Guest Opinion: Patent-busting will not get the world vaccinated

Published 3:57 pm Thursday, July 8, 2021

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By Michael Rosenblatt

Today, 40 percent of Americans have had a shot against Covid-19. Globally, coronavirus inoculations have saved millions of lives and will save tens of millions more.

Drug companies developed the new vaccines with impressive speed, thanks to years of earlier research and billions in private financing. And the system that gave us these shots depends entirely on strong intellectual property rights.

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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.

Right now, 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.

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.

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 U.S.-approved vaccines – Johnson & Johnson, Moderna and Pfizer – 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 had shipped 77 million doses to 127 participants.

The main obstacles to getting shots into arms have nothing to do with intellectual property.

So-called “last mile” delivery is 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.

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.

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.

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.

Michael Rosenblatt, M.D. 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 advisor to Moderna.