Intellectual property restrictions hamper the fight against COVID-19

Municipal workers barricade a a contaminated zone as a preventive measure against the spread of Covid-19
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The coronavirus-related disaster in India has reawakened Americans to the moral and practical demands of humanitarianism, the desire to provide relief for people suffering from disease, natural disasters, or violent conflict. President Biden has announced that the U.S. will deliver more than $100 million in essential supplies in the coming weeks. He is responding not only to the well-reported tragedy, but also to the heartfelt demands of the American people. 

The president’s gesture reflects a longstanding American humanitarian impulse to provide relief and save lives. It is an admirable trait and one that projects national values. That is not to suggest that benefits will not accrue to the United States. Preventing new variants of COVID-19 from reaching our shores is one and the soft power derived from goodwill is another. 

Humanitarianism, however, occasionally comes up against policy roadblocks of which the American people may be unaware. The COVID pandemic has exposed one very serious deficiency in our global response: the limits created by the set of international laws designed to protect intellectual property (IP).  

Patents and IP laws preserve the technological breakthroughs of private corporations and the investments they make in research and development. However, we have been wrestling with the humanitarian implications of these constraints for some time. The scientific breakthroughs that have produced the vaccines we need to counter the COVID pandemic underscore the contradiction between our need to fight the virus on a global basis and  the need to protect intellectual property. 

Walter Isaccson’s “The Code Breaker” brilliantly details the many years of research that produced the vaccines that fight the COVID virus. He focuses on the American scientist, Jennifer Doudna who very much deserves the accolades, but she would be the first to admit that she built her research on breakthroughs produced by other scientists from around the world. In fact, she shares her Nobel Prize with a French scientist. The work was done in the  laboratories of academic institutions, with U.S. government grants playing a very large role. 

The issue is the availability of scientific knowledge when the globe is fighting a life threatening pandemic. Can we afford to sit on that knowledge base and refuse to share it to preserve the narrower interests of private corporations?

India and other nations have long demonstrated the capacity to produce generic pharmaceuticals that are desperately needed to counter tropical diseases. Why not make an humanitarian exception and share the biotechnologies needed to locally produce the vaccines needed to counter the COVID-19 pandemic in places like India, Brazil and South Africa? 

The pharmaceutical companies will make huge profits from the vaccines in Western countries even though the U.S. taxpayer paid most of the research and development costs. There is a strong humanitarian and national security justification to share this technology and make an exception to the IP constraint.

India and other nations are now requesting that a waiver of IP restrictions be provided by the World Trade Organization to enable the production of generic versions of the COVID vaccines. The pharmaceutical companies are lobbying intensely against this believing that the waiver will constitute a slippery slope making it easier the next time to allow the production of generics. 

If a pandemic is not sufficient cause to allow an exception then nothing is. We have experienced many epidemics that threatened to go global. The best cure is to stop these viruses at the source. Yet, development agencies working to help developing countries create viable health care systems are operating with hands tied behind their backs. Essential pharmaceutical products are available only at exorbitant prices in the poorest countries if at all.

There is no question that the profit motive has encouraged “big pharma” to produce new life saving drugs; ironically many are derived from natural resources found only in tropical environments. IP protections are needed to preserve the scientific edge in normal times — but these are not normal times. If we don’t act now to stop COVID from spreading in frightening new forms, we will be sacrificing national security for protections that do little for the common person and a great deal for companies that are already well endowed with both profit margins and huge investments in taxpayers’ money.

Biden’s effort to help India in its time of need is a worthy reflection of core American values.  He can do even more if he positions the United States to support a one-time waiver of intellectual property protections and uses his authority under the Defense Production Act to force companies to share the bio technologies needed to produce vaccines in the countries facing the brunt of the pandemic. 

Brian Atwood is a visiting scholar at Brown Universtity’s Watson Institute. He served as administrator of the U.S Agency for International Development under President Clinton.

Tags COVID-19 pandemic COVID-19 vaccine Deployment of COVID-19 vaccines Joe Biden United Nations response to the COVID-19 pandemic Vaccine

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