By Charles Boustany
Scientists developed COVID-19 vaccines at an unprecedented speed, and distribution has by some measures been wildly successful. Less than a year after the first approvals, over half of the world’s population has had at least a first shot.
And yet, while over 70% of people in the highest-income countries have received a dose, that figure is only 5% in the lowest-income countries. For both moral and practical reasons, we need to urgently fix this gap.
As we look for solutions, some blame vaccine makers themselves. It should perhaps come as no surprise that people with little knowledge of science, economics or the drug industry would take this view. But it’s shocking to hear someone like Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, espouse this particular brand of criticism. In an October tweet, Frieden accused vaccine makers Pfizer and Moderna of “war profiteering” for “failing to share their technology.”
Such claims are outrageous. No serious person believes that these companies are profiting unreasonably or that suspending IP rights would do anything to get shots in arms more quickly.
Consider, first, the claim that these companies are profiting unreasonably. The world’s poorest nations are receiving donated vaccines; wealthy nations are paying “about the cost of a takeaway meal” for each injection, to quote Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla, and middle-income countries are paying about half of that. Low-income nations that are purchasing the vaccines are receiving them at cost.
Frieden’s point on technology sharing is equally disingenuous. Critics like Frieden suggest that if pharmaceutical companies would just give away the intellectual property behind their vaccines – “share their technology,” as he put it – more companies could immediately start producing shots, thus ending the pandemic.
First of all, vaccine manufacturing facilities are already running at capacity, and facing shortages of staff and raw materials. So just handing over trade secrets would do nothing to immediately increase supply.
More importantly, advocates for ending IP rights misrepresent how our system actually works.
It may be fashionable to vilify companies for seeking to make a profit. But the fact is, private investment, risk-taking, and the chance to make a return are crucial to the drug development process. No one would invest if they knew governments could nullify the IP protections that prevent the end product from being stolen. But thanks to these laws, the biopharmaceutical industry delivers new and better drugs every year for killers like heart disease, Alzheimer’s and cancer. Not to mention vaccines against novel deadly viruses.
We hear a lot about Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson because they brought vaccines to the U.S. market. But other pharmaceutical companies also tried. At least seven vaccines went through trials but were subsequently abandoned. Merck discontinued research on its candidates in January. GlaxoSmithKline only just entered a Phase III trial.
In short, there were no guarantees of success, financial or otherwise. We got vaccines because investors and companies took chances. And no one is going to take those chances in the future if we do away with IP law.
Health care leaders are right to lament the inequities in vaccine distribution. But vilifying medical innovators with absurd comparisons doesn’t help anyone. The companies that developed vaccines in record time are ending the war against COVID-19. And getting rid of IP protections on drugs would have deadly consequences in the long run.