President Biden, Release the Patents
By Zane Bataineh
Even though the world has a vaccine, the COVID-19 pandemic continues, accompanied by more needless deaths. The global release of the COVID vaccine patent has been in recent headlines along with President Joe Biden's support for the World Trade Organization's proposal to waive patent protections on the vaccines. Releasing the patent would bolster the ability of less developed countries to fight COVID-19 on their own without having to wait for American production or pay the cost for vaccines from pharmaceutical companies. By allowing countries to manufacture vaccines for their own people, the idea is that the world population will have a higher vaccination rate significantly sooner than it would otherwise. The current U.S. policy is to solely pursue a solution through the World Trade Organization in a multilateral effort with our allies in Europe and North America. However, Biden should be decisive and move unilaterally to waive these patent protections.
There are questions about whether Biden can release the vaccine patents but there is justification for such a unilateral move. In moments of national crises, the American government has previously ended patent protections for the greater good. Many pharmaceutical companies rely on American taxpayer dollars to support their research and development budgets while also charging obscene amounts for the same drugs they sell to the public. There is a significant discrepancy between the goal of patent protections and the policy response needed to fight a pandemic. In World War One, the U.S. ended the Wright brothers’ patent on airplanes for the war effort and nowadays we are dealing with a crisis at that magnitude. There is legal justification for this action and Biden needs to use it to fulfill one of his campaign promises. But this move will not be inherently popular with many of our European partners.
This plan would, however, be very popular on a global scale. It could help to strengthen America’s image which certainly has suffered in recent years. Especially in countries where we have falsely distributed vaccines, like Pakistan. We could use this opportunity to help them without any nefarious motives. By taking on the responsibility of a country caring for others, we could secure closer ties with a variety of countries who are more distrustful of us. This proposal by Biden would be a good faith act that would do more than just help recover the global economy. The move would allow Biden the opportunity to establish more legitimacy by stepping up to the international challenge of functioning as a world leader. But this is not to say that the move would be wholly positive, there are certainly concerns that Russia or China might have a vested interest in looking into American biopharmaceuticals but the risks of having the pandemic continue for years to come is far greater than knowledge our adversaries could gleam from the patents.
Pharmaceutical companies have long put profits before progress. Many of their arguments against this policy say that developing countries will not be able to handle the production of these vaccines. Nevertheless, this is not supported by the evidence. For example, even though India has been hit immensely by COVID, the country has been a prominent vaccine provider to the rest of the world, as Madhavi Sunder from the Georgetown University Law Center says, India is the “pharmacy of the developing world'. Other countries currently have the facilities and resources to manufacture vaccines to massively increase the global supply. Some of these other countries are considered developing, like India, but they have the infrastructure in place. To neglect this opportunity would be to condemn vast portions of the world to suffer from COVID-19.
Our considerations regarding global health must extend past just the profits of America’s drug companies. The U.S. has a responsibility to ensure that millions more are not dying around the world for the profit interests of pharmaceutical companies. Undercutting these companies would also promote American interest as well. The American economy needs the world to recover from the pandemic. It is hard to see the global economy recovering when less than 1% of people are fully vaccinated in low-income countries. If Biden acts now to end the vaccine patents, he can ensure that America’s image is improved, that people around the world get vaccines they need, and that this pandemic is put behind us that much faster.