The pandemic will be over when it’s over worldwide. It took more than common sense, though, for the Biden Administration to support developing countries in manufacturing COVID-19 vaccines themselves. It took uncommon sense to see that business as usual is not working, and boldness to change it up.
The dispute over vaccine patents sharply illustrates what’s not working. We in the U.S. may be comfortably improving, but the developing world is in a worsening crisis, with India’s tragedy a stark warning. And it’s no wonder. Rich countries’ citizens have received the large majority of vaccinations so far, while the developing world is getting a dribble.
India and South Africa have filed a formal request with the World Trade Organization for a waiver of patents and other intellectual property rights that limit production of coronavirus vaccines. This request is not a startling or extreme or risky measure. Such waivers are the quid pro quo we promised the developing world to get them to sign on to first-world patent rights. We promised they could override patents “in the case of a national emergency or other circumstances of extreme urgency.” If the COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t qualify, what does?
The Biden Administration’s decision to support the waiver is in our self-interest, as well. The International Chamber of Commerce estimates $9.2 trillion in losses to the world economy in 2021 alone, if developing nations don't get more vaccines. The danger of new variants will also stay high. All of that is the commonsense part.
What took uncommon sense here was breaking from decades of first-world thinking about patents and monopolies. Patents are short-term monopolies (which are bad) to encourage ingenuity in the long term (which is good). The somewhat glib thinking for 40 years, though, has been that monopolies are not as big a deal as we used to think, so patents are almost always good. This thinking has repeatedly led us to block such WTO waivers.
The casually pro-monopoly, pro-patent view goes back to Robert Bork and the conservative Chicago School, but has been embraced by liberal technocrats, too. A movement challenging this bipartisan conventional wisdom has been growing ever since “too big to fail” became infamous. The pandemic grimly shows more than money is at stake in this battle over monopoly power. The virus can spike with incredible speed, and mutates while we fiddle. The short-run costs of delayed vaccinations could be astronomical, making the long-run benefits of patent barriers look anemic.
The fact that the Biden Administration is willing to confront the big drug companies — that alone is revolutionary — and seems willing to rethink our lax antitrust policy bodes well for its approach to big tech and other concentrated economic power. Those battles are coming. But let’s get the world vaccinated, first.
Jerry Cayford, Ph.D., is the co-author with Michael R. Taylor of "American Patent Policy, Biotechnology, and African Agriculture: The Case for Policy Change."