News on COVID-19 Vaccine Patents in the United States

Written by Quinn Bourret (News Writer)

The Biden administration has stated their interest in temporarily ending the patent for the various COVID-19 vaccines in hopes of increasing production and ending Covid-19 faster. Vaccine production is limited to only three companies; Johnson and Johnson, Pfizer, and Moderna, as they have patents on their own vaccines. Although developed countries like the United States are dealing with COVID-19 effectively and efficiently, many less developed countries around the world, especially India, do not have the infrastructure or wealth to provide vaccines for their citizens. COVID-19 may remain in these areas for multiple years.

Patents are a fundamental part of innovation in a capitalist economy. Inventing a new technology, like the vaccine, can cost an exorbitant amount of money. A patent protects the company’s innovation by giving them the sole rights on selling it for a period of time, allowing them to make money through innovation. If such intellectual property protections did not exist, companies would be unlikely to innovate because rivals would gain the same value from the innovation at no cost; thereby making innovation more expensive in terms of competition than not innovating. Since the vaccine has already been created, the value of the patent is over for the government. The vaccine companies will lose no immediate profits as the demand for vaccines is beyond production, but money will be lost in the long run as they would produce a lower total number of vaccines.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, these and other pharmaceutical companies have opposed the suggestion. They suggest that infringing upon their intellectual property rights will stiffen innovation in the future because companies will not want to risk losing money. They also argue that vaccine production is not a bottleneck, and lifting the patent will do nothing. Instead, they have said that factors like exportation and gathering of raw materials have been far more limiting. 

Their case is not without water, with international leaders, notably Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron of France and Germany, making similar statements. Macron has claimed the lack of vaccines in the developing world is the fault of the United States, as it has been using its vaccines to aid its own citizens. He stated, “Today the Anglo-Saxons are blocking a lot of these ingredients and vaccines. Today 100% of the vaccines produced in the United States of America go to the American market.”

There will be immense ramifications if the Biden administration chooses to temporarily end the patent. The case calls into question whether or not the government should override intellectual property rights for the greater good. The answer to that will provide further ramifications for all industries that rely on patents. Whether or not the decision will even have a substantial beneficial effect on the production of vaccines has yet to be determined. It is a very important question, however, and one that needs to be answered. According to Bloomberg, if vaccination continues at its current rate, COVID-19 will remain for as many as seven years in developing countries, continuing to haunt the lives of billions.

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