Waiving IP rights means waving goodbye to future medical breakthroughs

By Sandip Shah and Deep Patel

The Biden administration recently announced that it would back a proposal by South Africa and India at the World Trade Organization to nullify American innovators’ intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines.

While the proposal’s adoption would not increase the number of global vaccine doses available, it would dissuade investment in innovation — effectively inhibiting the next generation of medical breakthroughs and hurting patients in the process.

To understand the importance of intellectual property, look no farther than the Covid-19 vaccines developed by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech. They discovered that by taking advantage of the body’s own molecular devices, mRNA can teach our cells how to make a protein similar to that of a given pathogen — which triggers an immune response. 

mRNA technology could create an entire new class of medicines. Once scientists have the genetic sequence of a targeted virus or disease, they can equip mRNA with the means to fend it off. This new approach of custom-made mRNA has the potential to address a host of diseases ranging from cancer and heart disease to Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis.

Moderna and fellow biotech firm Merck, for instance, have seen promising results for an mRNA-based therapeutic vaccine to treat cancer. Each treatment arms mRNA with a unique code to fight the particular mutations in an individual patient’s tumor cells.

These experimental vaccines and therapies could soon help millions of Americans live longer, healthier lives. That is, if our innovative ecosystem maintains the incentives necessary to fund them.

Pharmaceutical research and development is inherently risky. Most experimental treatments and vaccines meet dead ends, despite the billions of dollars invested.

Intellectual property protections help assure innovators that they have exclusive rights to their medical inventions for a period of time.

Without that sense of security, innovation would come to a standstill. Investors would have to expend resources elsewhere as development ventures — even those pursuing new applications for technology as promising as mRNA — simply won’t be financially feasible to pursue.

That’s precisely why it’s so concerning that the Biden administration has decided to support the intellectual property waiver that South Africa and India are pushing.

Administration officials likely felt pressured by the waiver’s proponents, who claim that stripping protections is necessary to ramp up global vaccine access. But there’s no evidence in support of that.

Giving away intellectual property rights will not expand supply because the real bottleneck lies with the logistical challenges of scaling up production. It takes time to retrofit manufacturing facilities so that they are capable of safely and effectively producing high-tech vaccines. Not to mention there is a worldwide shortage of the vaccines’ essential raw materials.

The WTO proposal is not a policy option to adopt and abandon when it inevitably proves ineffective in achieving its purported aim. There are real-world consequences of continuing down this path. If intellectual property is no longer protected, patients can say goodbye to future treatments and cures.

Those who recognize the value of American innovation can — and must — push back on this disastrous proposal before it’s too late.

Sandip Shah, a visiting professor at Rutgers, is founder and president of Market Access Solutions, which develops strategies to optimize patient access to life-changing therapies. Deep Patel works at Market Access Solutions. This op-ed originally ran in the Orlando Sentinel.

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