When the world needs help in times of natural disaster, war or famine, humanitarian efforts come calling. Individuals, businesses and governments respond with assistance and donations.
During the recent global pandemic, our greatest hope to curtail the rapid spread of COVID-19 fell squarely in the hands of scientists and researchers throughout the country working at biopharmaceutical companies and in the country’s top research universities, including UW Madison. Many worked around the clock researching, developing, testing and laying the groundwork to vaccinate and protect millions. Not since the massive mobilization of America’s manufacturing industry during the world wars has one industry responded so quickly, making and distributing game-changing vaccines globally.
In just under two years, that effort resulted in 4.9 billion people worldwide being fully vaccinated, thus significantly harnessing an out-of-control infection into one managed through protection. And while that is a great story to tell, an equally noteworthy one is how the World Trade Organization (WTO), the U.S. and other countries are now using the situation to give away the intellectual property rights that made it all happen.
This summer, the WTO — backed by the U.S. and a few other countries — voted to waive Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), requiring those who manufacture the lifesaving COVID-19 vaccinations to relinquish their confidential research for free to other less fortunate countries so they can manufacture and distribute their own versions of the vaccine. Sadly, several of these countries already have a history of a weak scientific infrastructure and/or poor distribution channels to support the perceived benefits of this giveaway. Complicating matters further, an expected vote in December by the WTO will expose even more confidential information by extending the present waiver to release previous proprietary research on COVID-19 therapeutics and diagnostics.
As one might expect, some companies are getting nervous. Biotech — the medical and science industries, or any company that thrives on confidential/intellectual property rights, product creation, research, etc. — is likely thinking twice about investing millions of dollars and thousands of hours of labor into creating something they know could now be taken from them and just given away.
Simply standing by and allowing this to occur threatens innovation and entrepreneurs well beyond the health community. A decision like this sets a concerning precedent that all businesses should take notice of. As someone who has also personally invented or co-invented more than 35 U.S. and foreign patents in various areas of biotechnology, I truly understand the value of this intellectual property.
Like others, I absolutely believe our country needs to be helpful internationally, but we also need to be smart and protective of our free enterprise system that encourages and allows new business and ideas to flourish through protected research and ideas. We shouldn’t be undermining the foundational incentives for ideation and innovation.
There are many paths to providing help to those less fortunate without hurting the businesses and great minds who put our country in this position in the first place. My hope is that the WTO, the U.S, and others will take a much harder look at issues like this before December and not make the same mistake twice. Undermining the protection of intellectual property — the cornerstone of American ingenuity — is not a solution to income or quality of life differences among countries. It would in fact just serve to make all future generations poorer.