BigPharma Says A Patent Waiver Won’t Deliver More Vaccines
There is a tsunami heading towards American shores. It’s not a tsunami under the ocean. This wave of sentiment is coming at us from the poorest countries of the world, and that sentiment is that the United States should share its vaccine technology with the rest of the world so that the worlds poor need not suffer from COVID any longer.
In the time since the first COVID vaccines were invented, the United States has become the largest producer of coronavirus vaccines in the world. Now the world says that we should share our inventions with them by allowing any country to produce the vaccine without paying royalties to the inventors. And President Joe Biden agrees.
India and South Africa were the first countries to propose a patent waiver at the World Trade Organization. An article published by CNN notes that there are concerns that if we waive the patents, wealthy vaccine producers might not have enough incentive to save lives:
Those with reservations say they are concerned that waiving patents could “in some way stifle innovation, creativity, the very things that have helped to bring about this miraculous invention of these vaccines in less than a year,” [WTO spokesman Keith] Rockwell said. However, proponents of the TRIPS waiver argue that this will not happen, he said.
Other countries around the world have been lobbying 6 months for a patent waiver, and now their ranks have swelled to more than 100 nations clamoring for relief. President Biden has also been listening to Congressional Democrats who have voiced support for a patent waiver. More than 110 Democrats in the House of Representatives have signed a letter in support of a patent waiver for COVID vaccines. But The Huffington Post reports that not all Democrats are enthused with the waiver proposal, and their dissenters happen to be the biggest recipients of campaign funding from pharmaceutical companies.
As you can imagine, BigPharma is not pleased with this development. They insist that a patent waiver will not save lives because everyone who can make vaccines is already producing as much as the world can. Bloomberg reports that:
“This change in longstanding American policy will not save lives,” said Stephen Ubl, the president and CEO of PhRMA, the biopharma industry’s lobbying group. “This decision does nothing to address the real challenges to getting more shots in arms, including last-mile distribution and limited availability of raw materials.”
But what if we had started with an open-source process for vaccine invention and development from the beginning? What if all research and development information had been shared? Well, we might have seen something like the success of the Linux kernel but for COVID vaccines and treatment. We might see much less duplication of effort. And we might see much faster development and improvement to vaccines, manufacturing processes, and delivery of vaccines.
To put the concept of open source development into perspective, Linux is now the most successful operating system in the world. More devices are powered by Linux than any other operating system. Free and open source development processes have created an operating system that has eclipsed the mighty Windows operating system in terms of the number of devices running it.
The reasons for the success of the Linux operating system include the fact that the code is shared freely among the people who build it, improve it and distribute it. There is one main rule to follow with Linux: if you change the code and make improvements when you distribute your version of Linux, you must include the source code along with the binary files so that others can maintain or improve the software you wrote. The Linux development model is designed to collect improvements to the code. And all of that is done without patents. There is even a patent pool for Linux developers and all members of that patent pool have agreed not to sue over patents implemented in Linux code.
The pharmaceutical industry has assured us that waiving the patents on the COVID vaccines will do nothing to increase the production of the vaccines. Dean Baker, an economist with the Center For Economic Policy and Research has noted that the production, distribution, and delivery of vaccines continues to improve and that the COVID vaccine industry has been in a constant state of learning:
Pfizer announced back in February that it discovered a way to cut its production time nearly in half. It also discovered that its vaccine did not need to be super-frozen at temperatures below minus 90 degrees Fahrenheit, instead it can be kept in a normal freezer for up to two weeks. This greatly eases the process of transporting and delivering the vaccine. It also discovered that a typical vial contains six doses rather than five, which implies 20 percent more doses.
If all patents for COVID vaccines were waived, I would expect to see significant production increases as know-how is shared. We could bring about an end to the pandemic much faster simply because we’d be working together, rather than separately, with less duplication of effort, building improvements upon each other’s work.
There is one other point that is missing from this entire discourse on the patent waivers: governments around the world paid for the vast majority of the inventive work on the patents. This means that the companies engaged in vaccine research entertained very little risk upfront to develop the vaccines and they were paid quite handsomely to deliver. Why should any company that performs research and development for vaccines at government expense get patents on their work, too? We paid for that work already with our tax dollars. There is no reason I can think of that can justify this “double-dipping”.
At the bottom of all of this is the fact that what runs our civilization is brains. The lives we save with the vaccines will save the brains we need to run the world. All of the gifts we have built for ourselves, the technology, the gizmos, the schools, and the businesses we depend upon, require brains to run and maintain. We produce medicine to preserve the brains needed to keep our world running smoothly, and you know, to keep our families intact, too.
When BigPharma complains of a possible patent waiver, they are expressing concern about a loss of a privilege. They have already been paid very well, and they will continue to be paid well, even without a patent protecting their inventions. And for all that talk about free markets, patents are a huge government intervention into an otherwise free market. If you don’t want the government involved in health care, you’re not in favor of patents on medical inventions, including vaccines.
So let’s get busy. Waive the patents on the COVID vaccine so that we can keep our civilization running.