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Biden’s cancer moonshot will miss without intellectual property


President Biden recently set a goal of slashing cancer death rates by at least 50 percent in the next 25 years — and announced billions of dollars in new research funding to make it a reality. It’s a plan with sky-high ambitions, a real “cancer moonshot,” as the president has branded it.

Unfortunately, that moonshot will likely never get off the launch pad, if some policymakers get their way. They’re pursuing policies designed to undercut U.S. intellectual property rights. Without those IP safeguards, biotech companies simply will not be able to justify investing in the risky, failure-prone work required to cure cancer.

Intellectual property protections give investors the security they need to forge partnerships with companies pursuing R&D projects. Investors know that should a project prove successful, they’ll be able to recoup their investment without free-riders ripping off their innovations and undercutting them in the marketplace. Thanks in large part to the traditionally strong IP protections that American law offers, bio-pharma companies have developed scores of new cancer treatments in recent decades. Those drugs deserve much of the credit for cancer death rates decreasing 27 percent between 2001 and 2020.

But some policymakers seem to not understand the importance of IP protections. They’re considering endorsing an effort at the World Trade Organization that would waive IP safeguards on COVID-19 diagnostic tests and drugs like Pfizer’s antiviral Paxlovid — which is currently available in abundant supply. The implications would extend far beyond COVID-19, setting a precedent that any sufficiently innovative medicine — like a bona fide cure for cancer — can be appropriated by the government from its owner. If that’s the case, why would investors ever choose to fund bio-pharma companies working on new cancer treatments?

Meanwhile, more than 100 Democratic lawmakers have urged Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra to take away drug companies’ rights to the patents on certain medications, if those patents stemmed from university researchers who received any federal funding. Some within the Biden administration are giving the request serious consideration. Government appropriation of private patent rights would further discourage companies and investors from spending their resources turning promising scientific discoveries that come out of America’s world-leading universities into tangible treatments that can benefit patients.

These two policies wouldn’t just jeopardize the cancer moonshot. They’d also squander the benefits of the president’s proposed $2 billion a year investment in advancing American biotech and biomanufacturing across sectors ranging from agriculture and energy to health and pharmaceuticals.

Two billion dollars is a lot of money — but it’s less than the average private-sector investment required to develop just one new drug. Only around 12 percent of drug candidates entering clinical trials receive FDA approval, and revenue from these rare successes has to cover the cost of many failures —  plus provide a return to fund future investment. No investors will come forward with resources on that scale if they face the prospect of the government seizing their IP at home or giving it away abroad.

To be clear, for every dollar the federal government provides in funding for a new drug, the private sector adds another $66. Innovation simply cannot happen without investment from the private sector, and killing patents kills that investment.

Weakened IP protections would inevitably lead to less investment, fewer new drug discoveries, and fewer new drugs reaching patients. Policymakers must wake up to the direct connection between strong, effective intellectual property rights and new health care products. Health care innovation requires a strong IP system. Simply put, without the IP-based investments that only the private sector can deliver, the cancer moonshot will never lift off.

Andrei Iancu served as the Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office from 2018 to 2021, under President Trump. David Kappos served as the Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office from 2009 to 2013, under President Obama. Both serve as board co-chairs of the newly formed Council for Innovation Promotion.

Tags Joe Biden Xavier Becerra

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