March 12, 2023
The New York Times had two pieces on Sunday talking about what we should do the next time we face a pandemic. Incredibly, neither said one word about waiving patents and other forms of intellectual property.
The NYT might have missed it, but this was actually a major issue in the developing world, as poor countries lacked access to vaccines, tests, and treatments. This was the reason that South Africa and India introduced a resolution at the WTO in October of 2020 calling for intellectual property rules to be waived for the duration of the pandemic.
I would hope that the NYT was aware of this issue, since it did affect a few billion people. It even featured a column on the resolution that was co-authored by Achal Prabhala, Arjun Jayadev, and me.
The logic of waiving intellectual property is probably too simple for the great minds that write for the NYT. The basic point is that we should want free exchanges of science to develop the best tools to combat the pandemic as quickly as possible.
And, we should want the technology to be dispersed as quickly as possible, both to directly protect lives, but also to stem the spread of the pandemic. We may not have seen the delta and omicron waves of the Covid pandemic if we had worked to disperse vaccines as quickly as possible.
Millions of lives would have been saved in this case. We would also have avoided trillions of dollars in economic losses worldwide.
I think government-granted patent monopolies are a terrible way to finance the development of drugs and vaccines for reasons I have listed in numerous pieces (e.g. see Rigged [it’s free] chapter 5 and here). To my mind, it is close to crazy to use the power of government to make drugs and vaccines, that are essential for people’s health, expensive when they are cheap to produce and distribute.
But that is not even the issue here. A temporary waiver does not preclude compensating companies for their patents and other claims to intellectual property. It just means that we don’t allow the intellectual property to interfere with the production and distribution of vaccines, tests, and treatments during the pandemic.
We instead make the focus treating people and slowing the spread of the pandemic as rapidly as possible. After the fact, we can work out the appropriate compensation for the companies with intellectual property claims. Presumably most of the payments would be negotiated, but companies would obviously have the option to sue the government if they didn’t feel the proposed compensation was adequate.
Could this mean that a Moderna or Pfizer ends up with less money than they felt they were entitled to? Sure, that is a possibility, but so what?
In any case, one might think that this would be the sort of issue that the NYT would discuss in the context of preparing for the next pandemic. But I suppose not. Some ideas just can’t be discussed in the pages of the New York Times. They apparently raise issues that hit too close to home.