Patents and aspects of innovation


US President Joe Biden’s support for the temporary waiving of intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines has already done something good.

It started a debate (that was not taking place) about an existing problem: that vaccines go to rich countries, but not to the poor ones. In poor countries, there is a serious shortage of Covid-19 shots, which delays inoculations, which in turn allows the pandemic to spread, while the transmission brings more deaths and creates breeding grounds for new, more dangerous mutations of the virus that will also affect developed countries.

A vicious cycle highlights the big problem: that the business model of vaccine production and distribution is insufficient to deal with a major pandemic.

It is good for those who fear that a temporary patent suspension may lessen companies’ appetite to innovate and produce vaccines to remember that this debate would not be taking place if those companies had produced the number of vaccines needed. But although they are registering unprecedented profits and their shares are skyrocketing, creating a favorable environment to meet demand, they are unable to do so.

Second, “appetite for innovation” is a relatively more complex issue. German biotech firm BioNTech received 445 million dollars (375 million euros) from the German government to speed up work on its Covid-19 vaccine and expand its production capacity; Moderna received more than a billion dollars from the US Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA); AstraZeneca has been funded with $1.3 billion from the British state for research. Vaccines for Covid-19 were created in record time because governments have been funding biomedical research generously for years (the US National Institutes of Health alone provides $40 billion a year for this research) and they also sometimes fund the clinical trials that companies conduct in the final stage – as in the case of Moderna.

And since the appetite for research is fueled by public money, companies are then given patents for 20 years – against the costs they are supposed to incur when, in fact, they were incurred by taxpayers. Thanks to patents, vaccines and drugs are sold at prices much higher than those set by the free market and competition – if these two existed.

It might sound strange, but I will wrap up here in a somewhat unorthodox way: There is also an issue of different values and a different model. From the market economy we have turned into market societies.

We need different role models, like Jonas Edward Salk, who developed one of the first successful vaccines for polio, the post-war nightmare that killed or paralyzed mostly children. On April 12, 1955, 66 years ago, when asked in a television interview who held the patent, he simply responded: “There is no patent. Can you patent the sun?”

Or, to change fields, like Tim Berners-Lee at CERN, who envisioned a global, fast, decentralized, non-bureaucratic information exchange system, creating the World Wide Web, which transformed the world. Berners-Lee rejected patents and rights and donated it to humanity. What great people these were and are, how usefully innovative their example should be today!