Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

You can’t rationalise greed: on Covid patents (part two) 

Part 2: An Ethical Perspective – The Cost of Big Pharma greed  

Let’s now review the moral foundations of IP rights. Can this self-interest be justified as private property? Is upholding Covid vaccine patents morally defensible?  These questions lead us back to the age-old debate about intellectual property rights.  

The idea that patents are a good thing, draws on the fact that they a) enable other intrinsically valuable things (e.g. future innovation), or b) are valuable in themselves. As put by the director-general of IFPMA (International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations)“The [waiver] effort would jeopardize future medical innovation, making us more vulnerable to other diseases.” State opponents of the TRIPS proposal, such as the EU, UK, Canada and more, echo this sentiment. But does this hold true? 

Opponents argue that patent waiving stifles innovation. If suppliers could copy products without having to incur R&D costs, they could charge prices closer to manufacturing costs. While this benefits patients in the short run, companies may be unwilling to invest in R&D if it is not compensated. As a result, no new drugs or vaccines are generated with private sector risk capital. In the context of Covid-19, there are 100 candidates in clinical development whose progress to authorisation could help tackle scarcity of supply, and increase competition.

  Avoiding the tragedy of commons on an international scale (not just rich countries!) requires equitable access to vaccines for all people

However, the pandemic has shown has it is completely possible to accelerate research driven by public funding and public health needs. Governments have invested billions of dollars to support Covid-19 R&D. The UK, for example, has contributed over £7 billion of public funds to the development and manufacturing of six front-runner Covid-19 vaccine candidates. Meanwhile, AstraZenecaand  Moderna have stated that their vaccine development costs will be funded by the public. This has mitigated private sector risk, and driven vaccine innovation at record speeds. In some cases, the patents also belong to the government. Additionally, there exists analyses and studies that have challenged the pharmaceutical industry’s claim that IP protection enables innovation (though this is beyond the scope of this article).  

A more legitimate concern is that the patent waiver sets an unwanted precedent in the long-term. It may lower future compensation for risk, especially for drugs with unmet demand, but also with high-risk and lengthy processes. Further, habitually investing taxpayer money for such health ventures may seem untimely or uneconomical.  However, some economists and public health activists argue that IP rights were never designed to be used during pandemics. As asserted by the director-general of the WTO: “The logic of patents can be harder to defend in the face of a public health crisis, especially when there are few efficacious drugs and these remain within the patent term, that can lead to calls for the breaking or easing of patents.” Further, the 1994 Marrakesh Agreement, which established the WTO, allows for waivers in exceptional circumstances. What could be a more exceptional circumstance than a global pandemic that has claimed the lives of 3.5 million people? If not now, then when? Avoiding the tragedy of commons on an international scale (not just rich countries!) requires equitable access to vaccines for all people. Vaccines are a global common good.

 The line between incentivising innovation and the existence of public goods, is really, a struggle between corporate power and public health

The only thing truly at stake, is Big Pharma profits. The line between incentivising innovation and the existence of public goods, is really a struggle between corporate power and public health. This seems to highlight how Big Pharma have chosen to be part of the problem, not the solution. Part of a problem pertaining to global economic damage,  but most of all, human and social losses. We can speak of logistics, the legal barriers, economic incentives all we want. But at the heart of the debate is ethics. We need all hands on deck to shift the course of the pandemic. For governments, for civil society: patent waivers are an opportunity to act morally, and it’s an economically sound choice (re: no one is safe until everyone is safe). The question is: are we committed to act in beneficence?


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