A few weeks ago, a positively daft idea emerged from the progressive left’s vast repository of daft ideas.
In a video message, the self-described socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders joined with progressive House members and called on the Biden administration to waive the intellectual property rights that helped produce a series of near-miraculous COVID-19 vaccines. The senator concluded with a rousing non-sequitur: “We need a people’s vaccine, not a profit vaccine.”
It was a terrible idea, and most recognized it as such at the time.
Animated by a crippling fear of emerging variants in the developing world and armed with an irrational mistrust of any innovation that contributes to the public good that also generates revenue for its innovators, progressives convinced themselves that the firms delivering us from the pandemic must be punished.
Their logic was simple, as it tends to be. Releasing these patents to the rest of the world will speed up the manufacture of these vaccines and help the rest of the world emerge from this pandemic as fast as possible. In the process, we all benefit by heading off the prospect that an evasive COVID mutation might emerge in these environments.
The idea was swiftly dismissed by experts with access to the president. Such experts included Dr. Antony Fauci. “Going back and forth, consuming time and lawyers in a legal argument about waivers—that is not the end game,” he told the Financial Times. “People are dying around the world, and we have to get vaccines into their arms in the fastest and most efficient way possible.”
Allowing other countries to override the American pharmaceutical sector’s intellectual property rights would likely devolve into a protracted legal battle, Fauci warned, costing precious time and crowding out other faster, simpler, and more effective ways to speed vaccines to the rest of the planet.
In fact, voluntary relationships between foreign and U.S.-based vaccine manufacturers already exist. Moderna already pledged that it would avoid enforcing its patent rights during the pandemic, for example, and Pfizer/BioNTech has partnered with overseas firms to speed production of its vaccine.
But the complex know-how needed to manufacture these vaccines at scale isn’t a plug-and-play operation. “It’s not like you’re just giving a recipe to another restaurant,” said Immunization Action Coalition’s John Grabenstein. “That ‘recipe’ is thousands and thousands of pages long, and then you have to validate and show that you meet all the really tight performance specifications and prove consistency of process before any of the regulators will let you distribute any of the vaccine.”
Finally, these companies have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders to ensure that they won’t lose money in the process of giving away their propriety methods. To abrogate that compact would threaten not just production of these vaccines, both here and abroad, but future vaccines based on this technology. This technology already shows promise in targeting vexing infections, including influenza, dengue and yellow fever, malaria, filoviruses like Marburg and Ebola, rabies, Zika, and hepatitis C.
The alternative to ceding private firm’s rights to the rest of the world should be to continue to manufacture these vaccines within existing legal frameworks and engage in a blitz of vaccine diplomacy. China and Russia have been doing just that for many months, and it has paid off in the form of increased diplomatic clout and soft-power capital.
At the very least, the U.S. government might have bought out the rights to this intellectual property and made it public domain, thereby helping these firms and their investors recoup their down payment on a brighter future.
None of that was good enough for the Biden administration or its progressive proponents, for whom progress without pain is just not worth it.
It shouldn’t be shocking by now, but the vaunted moderate president whose only passion in life, we were told, was to preserve the existing American social and civic compact has caved to the fringe left. “The administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections,” said U.S. trade representative Katherine Tai in a statement on Wednesday, “but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for Covid-19 vaccines.”
We could have leveraged our most powerful asset—American innovation and the superior products it generates. Instead, as one pharmaceutical industry professional said, the plan is to hand over “American innovations to countries looking to undermine our leadership in biomedical discovery.”
Writing for Stat News in early April, medical technology venture capitalist John Stanford explained in detail why the left’s prescription was bound to be a disaster for both his industry and the country as a whole. These vaccines, he explained, weren’t summoned into existence by a federal decree. The government’s primary role in facilitating their development was to waive red tape around their approval and pledge to purchase the finished product upon completion.
These vaccines are an outgrowth of private-sector invention and investment many years in the making. “What made investors willing to risk so much money was a system of intellectual property protection that would allow them, if successful, to recoup and profit from their investment,” Stanford wrote.
Without IP protections, copycats will steal this technology, undercut their producers on price, and eliminate the potential to recoup their investments. Investors will take that into account when deciding where to park their capital in the future. “In such a no-holds-barred environment, there would be little reason to invest in medical technology at all, and breakthroughs like Moderna’s vaccine would be all but impossible,” he added. “This is precisely the scenario that anti-patent crusaders risk creating.”
And that is precisely what the Biden administration has endorsed. Backing the blinkered progressive notion that profit motive is somehow corrupting and that there cannot be progress without the enforced suffering of those who worked to bring it about, the White House is intent on murdering the golden goose.