Battling The COVID-19 Pandemic- Are Patents A Help Or A Hindrance?

By Jeffrey M. Kaden

There are many issues relating to the COVID-19 pandemic and the vaccination process that began in early January. At the forefront of the news are questions of how to streamline distribution and deciding who is eligible and who is not. Not surprisingly, the issue of patent protection for the vaccination protocols that have been, or are currently being, developed receives far less media coverage.  It really should not.

In general, the patent laws in the United States and elsewhere provide for a limited-time monopoly on innovation. Many argue that these laws give the world’s wealthiest countries an unfair advantage over third-world developing countries in obtaining life-saving treatments, such as COVID-19 related vaccines.

Indeed, the development of coronavirus vaccines that are safe is heavily concentrated in the hands of a small number of patent owners, who, by extension, have monopolized vaccine production. Countries with significant financial resources like the U.S. and those in the EU have purchased the majority of the available supplies of vaccines from big Pharma. Why? Because they can afford to do so and other countries, unfortunately, cannot.

In addition, these same companies, companies like Moderna and Pfizer, have used their patents to legally block the development and production of vaccines by companies in other countries. For example, it has been reported that Pfizer’s patent position has prevented companies in places like India and Korea from developing alternative versions of the Pfizer vaccine.

Is all of this fair? Should not public health outweigh patent rights? Perhaps, as many health care providers advocate, there should even be a world-wide suspension of patent protection relating to COVID-19 vaccine technology?

On the other hand, many oppose the suspension of patent protection, arguing that doing so would be unprecedented and would inevitably deter future medical innovation.  It is certainly well known that drug research is incredibly expensive and ultimate success is very difficult to predict, let alone guarantee. Therefore, without the opportunity to obtain a patent monopoly, should success be achieved, both companies and prospective investors would be far less willing to take a chance on the development of new medical treatments.

Moreover, suspending patent protection relating to COVID-19 vaccine technology would not necessarily ensure that COVID-19 medications and treatments would become more readily available worldwide. The argument can be made that doing so would actually have the opposite effect as the elimination of patent protection could result in far less production of such medication and treatments.

While there is no easy answer, this author is a proponent of patent protection, even when it relates to life-saving medical innovation. Patent protection strongly encourages big Pharma and other companies to invest vigorously into research, which in turn produces breakthrough treatments, not just for COVID-19, but for other diseases and ailments. Weakening, or even eliminating patent protection, would likely dramatically decelerate innovation. This could well make us even less prepared for the next national or international medical crisis.

So what do you think? Have patents been a benefit or a hindrance in battling the COVID-19 pandemic?