Waiving Intellectual Property Protection: What Could Go Wrong?
, SENIOR ADVISOR, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES
President Joe Biden caved to political pressure from congressional Democrats on Wednesday, announcing that he plans to back a World Trade Organization (WTO) proposal to waive intellectual property (IP) rights for COVID-19 vaccines. We are, after all, in a pandemic, and without worldwide vaccine distribution, we will not be safe from the disease here at home. That is how the president justifies sacrificing the thousands of hours, billions of dollars and priceless intellectual capital invested by American industry into Operation Warp Speed.
Operation Warp Speed was the Trump administration's initiative to develop vaccines to combat COVID-19 as it was raging in the United States. The audacious undertaking, unlike any other public-private partnership since World War II, unleashed the brilliance of American scientists, the capabilities of the American pharmaceutical industry and the resources of the American government (provided by American taxpayers) to deliver more than 300 million safe, highly effective vaccinations in under a year to the American people.
Of course, elections have consequences, and President Donald Trump was not reelected. President Biden has effectively leveraged the long hours and scientific breakthroughs into a "win" in his first 100 days. He can take credit for vaccinating America and for sharing American ingenuity with the rest of the world through the mass production of vaccines and the distribution of them to the farthest corners of the Earth. This further demonstrates that America is the most generous country in the history of the world.
But just because we are generous does not mean that, along with the billions of vaccine doses we plan to distribute worldwide, we have to share the entire way in which those vaccines were developed. Just because Operation Warp Speed pushed every single lever in American manufacturing and research and succeeded in record time to develop vaccines doesn't mean that we need to share our know-how.
Should all the work of scientists in pharmaceutical and biotech firms be so devalued as to garner no benefit from success? America's pharmaceutical industry is the best in the world. Why does the Biden administration want to penalize it by removing patent protections from its extraordinary outputs?
Is American exceptionalism so widely assumed in the rest of the world that Washington can afford to offer up our excellence for free? And should Biden do so through an international organization like the WTO, whose rules are regularly flouted by malign actors like the People's Republic of China? Should our country receive no explicit credit for its contribution to global health through the development of vaccines that are 90-plus percent efficacious? Should the U.S. government's successful investment in American excellence be written off as a tax loss on corporate balance sheets at year's end because a very few companies were willing to step up to the plate and take on the grand challenge of tackling a deadly pandemic?
Let's think about what Biden's announcement portends for American research and development. What is to stop the administration from supporting a future WTO effort to waive IP rights for cancer treatments? Or for sophisticated semiconductor design due to global "outages" and the impact on global workforces and global manufacturing?
What could possibly go wrong with the president's efforts to undercut American research and development?
What motivated President Biden to devalue America as a leader in global research? He and congressional Democrats may not understand the impact their decision will have on future public-private partnerships with industrial research institutions like pharmaceutical or technology companies. Even worse, maybe they do understand, and they just don't care. Maybe maintaining a leading edge in global R&D isn't significant to them or their constituents. But when global R&D leaders, currently centered in the United States, come to realize that their work is not only unheralded for its great successes but harmed unnecessarily by Washington, those leaders will take their efforts abroad. India and Japan, no doubt, will be eager to welcome (previously) American efforts. But so will the People's Republic of China.
Beijing is already well known for its hunger for IP and its frequent theft of it. Opening the doors for China to access COVID-19 vaccine IP for free and effortlessly will not come with a gracious "thank you." It will come with stepped-up efforts by the Chinese Communist Party to find other IP to steal or to force Washington to give up.
Patent protections should remain in place on all vaccines developed in the United States. The exemplary American companies that invested in round-the-clock efforts to meet the pandemic and to stare it down should be hailed, not devalued. The U.S. can continue to manufacture, at warp speed, more vaccines and more treatments for COVID-19 patients around the world. And we will. It's what we do all the time when the world comes calling. We're Americans. Don't penalize us for being exceptional.
Bonnie Glick is a Senior Advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. She has co-authored three patents. From 2019-2020 she served as the Deputy Administrator/COO of the US Agency for International Development.