President Biden recently backed a World Trade Organization proposal to waive intellectual property protections on COVID-19 vaccines and therapies — a move the Trump administration rejected just a few months ago.
The White House’s decision is a catastrophe. The waiver will do nothing to increase access to vaccines. It will, however, undermine the system of intellectual property protections that made these breakthrough vaccines possible.
Patients today and well into the future will suffer, as investors think twice about funding risky efforts to research and develop therapies and cures for intractable diseases.
The waiver was first proposed by representatives from South Africa and India at the WTO in October. Its ostensible purpose is to expand access to vaccines in the developing world by seizing western pharmaceutical firms’ IP and licensing it to local manufacturers.
Those cheering Biden’s endorsement of the proposal have framed it as a triumph of humanitarianism over greed. “This is not a time to be protecting the multi-billions of dollars in profits for these companies,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said.
But neither patents nor profits are what’s keeping vaccines from reaching patients. The main culprit is a lack of manufacturing capacity and shortages of raw materials. There simply aren’t enough facilities capable of producing COVID-19 vaccines, particularly the high-tech mRNA shots developed by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech. Vaccine manufacturers are struggling to source enough plastic bags and Chilean tree bark, a crucial input for vaccines.
The idea that eliminating IP rights will somehow enable India and other developing nations to rapidly build up their own manufacturing capacity is fantastical. It would take at least a year to get a vaccine-making facility up and running, if it were to happen at all.
Moderna voluntarily waived its patents back in October. Yet no manufacturer anywhere on the planet has used that information to make more shots.
India and South Africa know this. They’re merely leveraging the pandemic to try to get their hands on valuable IP in order to bolster their domestic pharmaceutical sectors.
That Biden has gotten behind this disastrous plan shows just how far he will go to appease the far left in the United States. It’s lawmakers like Sen. Warren, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who have pressured the administration to back the waiver.
Even leaders in the United Kingdom and the European Union — no strangers to socialist healthcare policies — recognize the waiver as at best a distraction, and at worst a major threat. “We need the creativity and innovative force of companies, and for me, this includes patent protection,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a recent European Council summit in Portugal.
Europeans have been glad to impose price controls on cutting-edge pharmaceuticals — and risk delaying or denying their citizens access to them as a result. Yet for them, the WTO waiver goes too far.
IP protections and profit motive aren’t an impediment to accessible medicines. They provide the incentives that ensure companies create medicines in the first place. By showing a willingness to seize IP, President Biden has set a dangerous precedent that will do lasting harm to the infrastructure of drug innovation.
To justify the move, his trade representative Katherine Tai said in a statement May 5, “This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures.”
Progressives are already working on finding the next “crisis.” On the same day Tai’s statement was released, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said “Let’s do insulin next.”
In other words, the IP that has underpinned billions of dollars in investment into treatments for cancer, heart disease, and diabetes could soon be at risk. The very possibility of this scenario will be enough to slow medical research.
President Biden’s support for the WTO’s intellectual property waiver does nothing to bring COVID-19 vaccines to the developing world. Worse, it forewarns a future where there are fewer vaccines or other innovative treatments for any of the planet’s residents.
Sally C. Pipes is president, CEO, and the Thomas W. Smith fellow in healthcare policy at the Pacific Research Institute. Her latest book is False Premise, False Promise: The Disastrous Reality of Medicare for All, (Encounter 2020).