Should the world abolish intellectual property rights on covid vaccines or not? An interesting and important question, the answer to which depends upon what it is that you’re trying to do.
If you’re trying to gain more vaccines in order that the world may be vaccinated then no, you shouldn’t abolish them:
These partnerships would not happen without the legal certainties provided by IP rights. Rip up the rules and the partnerships may crumble. The last thing the world needs at this delicate stage is a reshuffling of the deck.
Even more dubious is the notion implicit in the WTO proposal that there is spare manufacturing capacity that could be harnessed if only IP didn’t stand in the way. In reality, only a few countries have this advanced manufacturing capacity, and trying to build them in developing countries where they do not currently exist should not be the priority now.
“Most countries do not have industrial cell culture capacity or sterile fill-and-finish lines, and trying to start them from scratch is not a good use of time, money and effort. It would be like deciding that Switzerland needs to be self-sufficient in sushi,” says ex-pharmaceutical researcher and science writer Derek Lowe.
The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are based on mRNA, a new vaccine technology that is making its commercial debut in this pandemic. “There is no mRNA in manufacturing capacity in the world,” says Stephane Bancel, Moderna’s boss. “This is a new technology. You cannot go hire people who know how to make the mRNA. Those people don’t exist.”
IP is not actually the problem faced.
There is also the incentive problem to be faced. Those companies have spent a few tens of billions to get to this stage. They’ve done pretty well too. We do not enforce intellectual property rights because they are just and or righteous. They are, after all, entirely an invention, there is nothing natural about them. They are instead a temptation.
We allow the people who have just solved this problem for us to make out like bandits because it is that temptation to the people who might solve our next problem for us. The value of vaccine development is something like $50 billion a day to us as a species. No, really. A global economy of around $100 trillion, covid sliced, at its worst, about 20% off that. $20 trillion divided by 365 is $54 billion a day. Each day shaved off the development and deployment process is worth that $54 billion to us.
So, imagine that we don’t allow people to profit this time. The hesitation to solve our next problem is going to be greater. Sure, by some unknown amount but greater than if they make out like bandits right now. This might not be a good bargain for us to be trying to make.
But let’s put pragmatism to one side and think about pure ideology. Imagine you insist that the job is to smash neoliberal globalisation? The task before us is to kill capitalism and bring forth that wondrous world of locally self-sufficient socialism. Imagine, in effect, that you are Nick Dearden of Global Justice Now.
Pissing in the soup of intellectual property rights does this rather nicely. Sure, people will suffer now, people might well die now and in the future. Firstly from that upending of the most successful disease investigation programme ever and secondly from the destruction of incentives. But omelettes and broken eggs, just think how wondrous that future society is going to be when global businesses just don’t exist.
The arguments against vaccine IP are in fact nothing at all to do with vaccines or indeed IP. They’re tools being used to bring on the glorious revolution. At which point the answer is obvious. We should drag Dearden up out of his mother’s basement and send him off to enjoy the glorious socialist revolution. To one of the two places where it does in fact exist – N Korea or Cuba, your call Nick.