Three U.S. companies — Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson — created and manufactured the world’s most effective mRNA COVID vaccines in record time. An increasing majority of Americans have now been inoculated, but much of the developing world remains in desperate need of vaccines. Americans naturally want to help. The question is how.
Last month, President Biden advocated removing international intellectual property rights (IPR) protections for American-made COVID-19 vaccines. This, he said, would help make the vaccines more plentiful and available in needy countries. It’s a short-sighted approach and doomed to fail.
Mr. Biden wants to waive the World Trade Organization’s “Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights” (TRIPS) agreement for U.S. vaccines and let foreign countries issue “compulsory licenses“ allowing their domestic pharmaceutical companies to manufacture the medicines without adequately compensating the companies that invented them.
Practically speaking, countries such as India and South Africa are unlikely to manufacture the vaccines. They lack an advanced infrastructure for cold supply-chain distribution and many other crucial resources required by these products’ capital-intensive, state-of-the-art manufacturing process.
But the Biden policy is bad for many other reasons.
Developing breakthrough medications takes tremendous ingenuity and immense financial investments. It’s an extraordinarily high-risk endeavor, and the prospect of making a profit is what convinces private companies to undertake those risks.
Signaling that the United States will not fight to defend their intellectual property rights actively undermines innovation and manufacturing in American health care and medicines.
It also erodes patient protections by undermining quality control. Foreign companies may take the president’s policy as a green light to produce reverse-engineered, counterfeit substitutes. Already there are reports of ineffective and even dangerous counterfeit COVID-19 vaccines being sold around the world.