In response to the continued struggles of countries like India to combat the coronavirus, President Biden’s administration recently announced their support for a dangerously misguided solution: Waiving intellectual property (IP) rights of companies that developed COVID vaccines.
This decision comes after countries like India and South Africa have pressed the World Trade Organization (WTO) for an agreement known as the TRIPS Waiver, that would suspend the "implementation, application and enforcement" of IP protections for products that prevent and contain COVID. Some U.S. lawmakers have also pushed for this.
President Biden and other leaders attempting to deliver on COVID diplomacy are missing something major—the COVID vaccines by Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson weren’t a direct product of the U.S. government, they were largely a result of capitalism.
In fact, the vaccines that were a direct result of government initiatives, that of China and Russia, failed miserably. While so many voices are currently criticizing capitalism and advocating for socialist outcomes, there is no greater example of the success of capitalism than the rapid development and deployment of the most effective COVID vaccines in the world.
Dissolving patent rights is a short-sighted move that would undermine the system that successfully produced vaccines in the first place and would create consequences for U.S. security.
Few understand that years before the pandemic, U.S. pharmaceutical companies were already researching the mRNA technology which underpins COVID vaccines. These capabilities were rooted in the U.S. pharmaceutical industry being the most capable and innovative in the world. Despite repeated attempts by China to compete with American industry through campaigns like "Made in China 2025," year after year, America continues to lead the world in medical and technological advancements.
It is also crucial to recognize that the development of vaccines by Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson were not directly funded by the U.S. government. Moderna was the only vaccine developed in the U.S. with the help of taxpayer dollars, but the private investment into the company’s research and development was essential.
The U.S. government’s main role came after innovation: purchase and distribution. The U.S. has purchased millions of Pfizer and Moderna vaccine doses. Following acquisition, the U.S. government played a logistical role in vaccine distribution. For instance, the National Guard was utilized to help administer vaccines in states across the country.
The U.S. government was mainly the customer of corporate, market-driven companies, not their creator. A successful vaccine rollout was largely a product of private company’s innovation strengthened by government efficiency.
This was flawlessly captured by the CEO of Johnson and Johnson Alex Gorsky in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. Speaking of the vaccine creation and distribution in the U.S., Gorsky stated it was a "golden moment" for the biopharmaceutical industry. "We fundamentally believe that having a market-based, innovation-based, biopharmaceutical as well as a medical-technology environment, is critical long term to produce the best overall outcomes for healthcare."
Waiving these IP protections could cause future investors to hesitate in investing in medical and pharmaceutical advancements that may be needed for future crises. President Biden should reflect on these words and also consider the series of national security implications for waiving IP protections. As reported on by the Washington Post, India has worked for years to weaken WTO intellectual property protections.
Also, producing mRNA vaccines is an incredibly complex process. It could be challenging for countries not currently involved in advanced mRNA research to undertake the production and distribution of an mRNA vaccine, especially considering the urgency behind the need for countries to access vaccines.
Another solution is already in effect. The U.S. has generously donated vaccines to other countries. As U.S. vaccinations increase, President Biden should consider continued efforts to donate vaccines to countries in need.
The TRIPS Waiver is the wrong solution to respond to the pandemic at the expense of future innovation. It will give adversaries like China a way to source a competitive advantage against us for tomorrow’s battles, such as future pandemics.
Many individuals, including supporters of this waiver agreement, have grown too accustomed to demonizing capitalism and the pharmaceutical industry. Even they must not ignore that America's successful COVID vaccine rollout is the greatest case for capitalism in our lifetime. That is worth protecting.
Republican Mike Turner represents Ohio in the U.S. House of Representatives where serves as a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and Ranking Member of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces.