Should COVID Vaccine Patents Be Made Public?

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD


June 16, 2021

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Hi. I'm Art Caplan. I'm at the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University's Grossman School of Medicine in New York City.

Joe Biden shocked the world when he came out and said that he was going to order his trade representative to get on board the movement to give away patent information about vaccines. In other words, the formulas that Pfizer, Moderna, Janssen, and other companies use to make their vaccines — their trade secrets. They are private, and they own the property.

The argument has been made that we need more vaccines around the world in countries rich and poor, so give away the formula, let them make more vaccine, and that'll help get the pandemic under control.

Even if you don't care about intellectual property and vaccine fights, people are also saying, "Let's give away more intellectual property so that we can get the price down of cancer drugs and other expensive medications." Should we start to dismantle intellectual property protection that pharma and the biotech industry have in order to drive down prices and increase access?

The big-picture issue of whether we're going to protect intellectual property across the board, I think, should not be one that we just dismantle in the face of a pandemic. I am not against doing what Joe Biden wants to do — a one-off release of the information in the patent because it's a pandemic, and make it clear that it's only for these vaccines for COVID-19. I don't think we should disassemble the intellectual property protection system that leads companies to have huge incentives and big profits to find new drugs; devices; gene therapies; and, additionally, other vaccines.

I'm also skeptical whether the release of intellectual property around COVID-19 vaccines is going to help very much. The real challenge, when you look at vaccine availability, is not having the recipe. If you don't have a kitchen and you don't have the ingredients, it doesn't matter whether somebody gives you the recipe to make a cake.

You quickly realize, if you look at the vaccine sector, that the limit is not knowing the secret formula; it's having a factory, it's having the ingredients, and it's making sure that you can make vaccines safely. You can give the formula for making COVID vaccines to every country on Earth, but very few of them are going to be able to build a factory in a timely way and get vaccine supply out to their people.

A much better idea, I think, would be to tell each vaccine company to adopt a region of the world. Pfizer, you take Central America. Moderna, you handle sub-Saharan Africa. You're going to try and build a factory with those folks. You're going to try and make vaccines with those people, and you'll do it at cost. The rich countries, if they have to, will reimburse these private companies for making those vaccines; however, I think the companies are making enough money that they could just do it.

To vaccinate the world, poor countries need factories, technical assistance, and the ability to get the ingredients if they're going to do it. The experts at making vaccines are in a few countries, mainly in Europe and the United States. Trying to give away formulas is not the road to getting the world vaccinated any time soon. That's not the bottleneck.

Whether it's the bottleneck for drugs, whether it's the bottleneck for devices, whether we have a world with more access, if we didn't enforce patents all the time on cancer drugs or biological tests, we can argue that another day.

Let's not kid ourselves. It sounds good and easy to say, "Hey, the solution to getting the world vaccinated is to give away the formulas." However, the fact remains that the solution is to tell the companies making the vaccines to make more of them and to tell those companies to partner up with different parts of the world and help them build factories and get the infrastructure so that they can make vaccine.

As the old adage goes, you want to teach a person not to accept fish from somebody who's fishing every day, but to teach them to fish. That's what I think we ought to expect our private pharmaceutical companies that have done such a great job in finding these vaccines to do when it comes to supplying the world: Teach them to fish.

I'm Art Caplan. I'm at the Division of Medical Ethics at the New York University Grossman School of Medicine. Thanks for watching.

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD, is director of the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University Langone Medical Center and Grossman School of Medicine. He is the author or editor of 35 books and 750 peer-reviewed articles as well as a frequent commentator in the media on bioethical issues.

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