The Biden administration is about to give Russia and China one of the greatest American technological breakthroughs of the 21st century for free.
This is not the purpose of the administration, of course. But it’s the inevitable outcome of a proposed deal that US negotiators recently reached in Geneva, Switzerland, at the World Trade Organization.
The pact would effectively nullify intellectual property protections on COVID-19 vaccines, including next-generation mRNA injections from US companies Moderna and Pfizer. These mRNA platforms represent decades of research backed by billions of dollars in public and private investment. But if the WTO votes yes at its June 12 summit, our strategic and economic competitors – who have contributed nothing to the effort – will enjoy the greatest free ride ever.
It is infuriating that the administration is ceding the incalculable economic and diplomatic benefits of these platforms. And it is particularly insulting that the negotiators tell their constituents that this decision is necessary to increase the supply of vaccines to the developing world. This is obviously false.
In fact, there is a world glut vaccines – and have been for months. Late last year, five African countries – Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe – asked Pfizer to stop vaccine shipments because they have more than they need. can process. Adar Poonawalla, CEO of India’s Serum Institute, said his company had 200 million doses in stock due to a lack of demand. The Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has called for a pause in vaccine donations.
Pharmaceutical companies have the capacity to produce 20 billion COVID vaccines this year. That’s more than enough to serve a global population of about 8 billion people, many of whom have already been vaccinated. Supply is clearly not an issue.
So what? Africa CDC chief John Nkengasong said it was partly a matter of logistics — having the personnel and equipment to get shot — and partly hesitant about vaccinations. Just like in wealthy parts of the world, many people in poor countries are skeptical about vaccines.
Suspending intellectual property protections would do nothing to solve either of these obstacles on the ground. However, it would jeopardize the system that made COVID vaccines possible, as well as countless other life-saving medicines.
Drug manufacturers must invest billions of dollars to bring new drugs to market. The failure rate is high: only 12% of experimental drugs that enter clinical trials are ultimately approved for use in patients.
If innovators didn’t have a period of exclusivity on their drug designs, any rival could simply steal their work. No company would be able to recoup its initial investments in research – and funding for cutting-edge drugs would plummet.
Proponents of the proposed deal dismiss such concerns, pointing out that it only applies to COVID vaccines, which of course already exist.
But it is misleading. The language of renunciation is slippery. It specifies: “No later than six months from the date of this decision, [WTO] members will decide whether to extend it to cover the production and distribution of COVID-19 diagnostics and therapies.
Note: “decide” not “may decide”. And supporters of the waiver are already pushing for this extension. “Vaccines are not the only tool in the fight against COVID-19,” says Priti Krishtel, co-founder of Initiative for Medicines, Access, and Knowledge. “To save as many lives as possible, an IP waiver would include testing and treatment.”
The waiver would set a disastrous precedent that activists and some WTO members would surely try to extend to other areas of medicine. Why not give up patent protection on drugs that treat cancer and heart disease – two diseases that kill far more people than COVID-19?
The waiver also poses a national security risk. Russia would qualify directly for access to mRNA technology. And China pushed back on a footnote to the deal to block the communist nation’s access. Even if this footnote is ultimately approved and China is technically prevented from stealing our technology, it could easily gain indirect access to it with the help of its allies. In effect, the United States will unilaterally give up one of our few remaining economic advantages. American innovation will go to our largest foreign competitor countries without compensation.
Violating the intellectual property rights of American companies – and offering the fruits of their labor to our adversaries – is a spectacularly bad idea. That we are about to do this in the name of solving a vaccine shortage that does not exist is mind-boggling.
Andrei Iancu served as Undersecretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office from 2018 to 2021. David J. Kappos served in the same positions from 2009 to 2013.