Patenting the Covid-19 vaccine is wrong

The world has recorded at least 166 million cases of Covid-19 and over 3.4 million deaths, according to the Hopkins coronavirus dashboard, and the true numbers are certainly far higher. The only way we will defeat this virus is through vaccines, and fortunately science has delivered the goods, with multiple highly-effective vaccines now being produced. In some countries we are turning the corner: in the U.S. cases have been steadily declining since mid-winter, and are now at their lowest level since last June.

Unfortunately, in many countries the virus is raging unchecked, and vaccines are in very short supply. We won't defeat SARS-CoV-2 until the whole world has adequate supplies of vaccines.

One barrier to wider, more rapid distribution of vaccines is patents. The companies that are making the vaccines have patents on them, which means that no one else can manufacture the vaccines without paying license fees. 

The human species doesn't have time for this nonsense. The profits of a few companies are far, far less important than the lives of millions of people. And yet many governments, including most EU countries, are standing firm behind the patent system. Crudely put, they are defending money over human lives. 

Recently, in a surprising move, President Biden announced support for a "vaccine waiver" that would allow any country to develop vaccines against Covid-19 without licensing the technology from one of the companies that currently holds a patent. The UK is now considering supporting a waiver as well, but other countries in the European Union and the G20 have come out against any waivers. The EU position seems to be that if you can't pay, you can't have the vaccine, even if your own scientists have the expertise to manufacture it themselves.

I've been an outspoken critic of patents for many years, including gene patents (which never should have been allowed in the first place) and software patents (which are frequently filed for trivial ideas and often used primarily to create lawsuits), but patents on the Covid-19 vaccine are objectionable for a different reason: they're unethical. If companies persist in enforcing them, the governments that approved the patents should simply invalidate them.

I know that many people will tell me I'm naive for suggesting this. I have heard their arguments before, many times. These include claims that without the patent system, companies simply won't invest in new inventions, and the public will suffer. These claims are, bluntly put, wrong.

In a famous 1955 interview, Jonas Salk, the inventor of the polio vaccine, was asked by journalist Edward Murrow who owned the patent. 

“Well, the people, I would say," Salk replied. "There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?" 

And yet despite not being patented, the polio vaccine was successfully produced and distributed, and as a result humans have essentially eliminated polio from the world. (It still persists in a handful of countries, due to political and economic reasons as well as vaccine resistance.)

Just a few days ago, epidemiologists Gregg Gonsalves and Gavin Yamey (from Yale and Duke) published a public call for a "people's vaccine," which would require waiving patent rights on Covid-19 vaccines. They point out that vaccine waivers are just one step among several that we need to take, as a species, if humans are going to defeat this pandemic. So if I'm naive, I guess I'm in good company.

Why do we have the patent system at all? When you think about it, the patent system is a government-supported, guaranteed monopoly on a commercial product. The only possible reason for governments to support this is that the citizens of their countries will benefit. The patent system was never designed to guarantee the profits of private corporations and law firms–but of course these groups have profited immensely from patents, and they have created an entire ecosystem to defend the status quo.

But I digress. The Covid-19 pandemic is a worldwide health crisis that surpasses anything we've seen since the 1918 influenza pandemic. Stopping the pandemic, and ending the suffering and death of millions of people, will require getting vaccines into most of the world's population, whether they live in rich countries or poor ones. Patents and the licensing fees that come with them can only slow down this process.

That's why enforcing patent protection on any Covid-19 vaccine is unethical. The companies that are claiming patents could fix this by announcing that they will offer their technology for free to anyone in the world, but we can't expect that to happen. President Biden's announcement that the U.S. supports a patent waiver, and the UK's likely announcement of a similar position in the coming days, are a great move in the right direction. Let's hope that the rest of the world's governments follow suit.