By William Watson, December 17, 2020
The WTO met Wednesday to consider an Indian-South African proposal to drop intellectual property protections on vaccines for the duration of the pandemic so that poor countries can access them more easily. The timing is awkward, just days after Big Pharma’s triumph, with Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna rolling out vaccines within a year of a viral outbreak, breaking the Guinness and all other world records for such things.
We don’t actually know what evil lurks in the hearts of pharmaceutical executives. Their motivations in racing to a vaccine may have been complex. Some may have been seeking fame for themselves or their companies, which can only help in raising future capital. Some may covet the Nobel Prize. Some — we should at least entertain the possibility — may just have wanted to do good science and help people. And, finally, yes, some may well have been mesmerized by the big, big dollar signs involved in producing a vaccine the whole world is desperate for.
Most ordinary Westerners, long subjected to Hollywood movies in which money-grubbing Big Pharma tries to crush some bankable box office star who has discovered the planetary dangers in its latest reckless money grab, almost certainly will assume profits and only profits were key. If that’s true, however, it might be prudent to consider the implications for our next pandemic of adopting the rule that companies can have intellectual property rights in the vaccines they invent only until those vaccines are actually rolled out. You get a week of profit-making and then it’s “Now hand over that formula, or else.” When that happens, kiss disease eradication goodbye. The Big Pharma bosses don’t actually splice the genes. But they’re not stupid. If money does matter to them and their companies — and how could it not, given the cost of R&D? — they will think twice about inventing intellectual property that gets confiscated the minute it’s proved. Actually, they won’t think twice. They’ll just not do it, period.