March 17, 2023
David Wallace-Wells just wrote a column describing measures being passed in state legislatures controlled by Republicans, which will make it more difficult for governments to implement measures like temporary business closures or mask and vaccine mandates, all as tools to contain a deadly pandemic. While these laws may seem like an exercise in ungodly stupidity, the New York Times would not allow mention in its paper of restrictions that are likely to pose an even greater risk to public health in the next pandemic.
Of course, I am talking about intellectual property rules. Yes, I have been hitting this one hard in the last few days, but that is just because I find the arrogant ignorance on this issue so infuriating. And it matters.
We don’t know what the next deadly pandemic will look like, and with luck it will be many decades in the future. But we can envision what might have been different about the course of this pandemic if we went the open-source route, where all the science and technology was freely available for others to build on and to use to manufacture vaccines, tests, and treatments.
And, to be clear, this doesn’t mean that companies would not be compensated for their investments in developing the needed technology. The compensation would just take a different form, as a check from the government, rather than charging monopoly prices on vaccines or other products. Of course, companies could sue in court if they considered the compensation inadequate.
If we had gone down this route, all the information for making all vaccines, tests, and treatments would have been available for any manufacturer in the world. Governments interested in slowing the spread of the pandemic would also pay to produce and stockpile these products, especially vaccines, in advance of their approval by the FDA and other countries regulatory agencies.
This would be a very low risk proposition, since the vaccines were cheap to manufacture, less than $2 a shot in most cases. The potential loss from having to throw out 200 million vaccines that proved to be ineffective is trivial compared to the incredible benefits of having 200 million vaccines that could be quickly put into people’s arms once a vaccine was approved.
By pooling technology, we could ensure that people have a choice of vaccines. If people had refused to get vaccinated due to fears of mRNA vaccines (rational or otherwise), there were a number of vaccines based on well-established technologies that could have been made available as an alternative. (The FDA did approve non-mRNA vaccines manufactured by Johnson and Johnson and Novavax, but there were also non-mRNA vaccines widely used in other countries that in principle could have been available here.)
If a range of vaccines had been produced and stockpiled in vast quantities in 2020, when they were being tested for approval, we would have begun large-scale world-wide vaccination campaigns in late 2020 and the first months of 2021. This would have rapidly slowed the spread of the virus, almost certainly preventing the development of the omicron strain and quite possibly the delta strain.
That would have saved millions of lives and avoided trillions of dollars in economic damage. If we adopted the same approach to tests and treatments, this would both further reduce the spread and also the likelihood of death or serious illness among people who got infected.
But, any discussion of suspending intellectual property rules is strictly verboten in the New York Times. They only have space for trashing the Trumpers doing theatrics over banning pandemic mitigation measures. While these Trumpers do certainly deserve the criticism Wallace-Wells directs towards them, it would be great if we could have a discussion of the policies that do far more serious damage to public health, even if they mean big profits to the drug industry.