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Seizing patents will hamper COVID-19 vaccine development

By Christopher Holman - Guest Columnist | Sep 4, 2020

It’s full speed ahead on the scientific front in the fight against COVID-19. We’re on track to have an arsenal of vaccines and medicines for the novel coronavirus within a year.

Due to strong U.S. protection for intellectual property, the United States has been at the forefront of pharmaceutical innovation for decades. We are now better prepared to seek solutions to a pandemic than any other country in the world.

How troubling and short-sighted it is, then, that Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and other House leaders have called for policy changes that would undermine this culture of innovation. They want to strip the scientists working to defeat the coronavirus of intellectual property protections for life-saving innovations.

This pledge came on the heels of a global push from Doctors Without Borders urging political leaders to preemptively seize patents on COVID-19 vaccines and therapies. Proponents claim these efforts will “ensure availability, reduce prices and save more lives.”

What nonsense. The entire healthcare community has assured the public that COVID-19 breakthroughs will be disseminated as widely as necessary. Unsubstantiated fears of price-gouging should not be allowed to derail ongoing efforts to address this major public health challenge.

Eliminating intellectual property protections would not only reduce incentives to develop coronavirus treatments as quickly as possible; they will also destroy the domestic industrial base that could be the key to stopping the next pandemic.

Take this historical example that highlights the value to the public of patent protection.

At the onset of America’s involvement in World War II, President Roosevelt called on companies to develop and mass-produce for soldiers a life-saving medicine that could beat back lethal infections from battlefield wounds: penicillin.

A few companies rose to the president’s challenge. Pfizer, then just a fermentation company, was among them. The company found a fermentation process to produce penicillin on a war-time scale. Company leaders risked a lot - had they failed, Pfizer might have been out of business.

Thankfully, they did not. On D-Day, Pfizer manufactured 90 percent of all penicillin sent to soldiers overseas.

Pfizer also helped the war effort by sharing its fermentation process with other firms. Eventually, 19 companies helped work on a drug meant not just for soldiers, but anyone at home fighting a bacterial infection.

Pfizer continued production after the war — and built on its patented processes in new lines of research, helping to usher in the age of antibiotics in the 1950s.

Research companies used derivatives of penicillin to develop dozens of new antibiotics. The revenues from those medicines enabled Pfizer to fund additional research. Indeed, Pfizer’s Zithromax, a descendent of its early penicillin efforts, is a potential COVID-19 fighter.

If the government had taken away Pfizer’s original intellectual property for manufacturing penicillin, none of this future progress would have been possible.

Now, we face another world war, this time with coronavirus. The world is counted on science to deliver — and it will.

If governments strip away intellectual property protections, they will set an uncertainty-inducing precedent that will discourage the funding researchers need to explore other potential uses for today’s discoveries. We would compromise our response to this pandemic — and the next one.

Christopher Holman is a professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, where his primary research focus lies at the intersection of intellectual property and biotechnology. He also serves as a Senior Scholar at the Center for the Protection of Intellectual Property, and has published numerous articles in law reviews and scientific publications such as Science, Cell, and Nature Biotechnology.

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