Eroding patent protections has far-reaching consequences.
Take “messenger RNA,” the technology platform that supports the vaccines from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna. Ozlem Tureci and Ugur Sahin, the wife-and-husband team at the helm of BioNTech, began exploring the use of mRNA more than 25 years ago and founded their company in 2008. Theoretically, mRNA can instruct the body to engineer proteins, including ones that increase immunity against infectious pathogens, cancers and rare genetic conditions. But the Covid-19 vaccines are the first truly successful applications of this technology. Scientists eager to explore future uses of mRNA will struggle to find investment if intellectual property protections are snatched away when others deem it necessary.
Critics of intellectual property rights cite public investment in research as a reason to waive patent protections. They correctly point out that governments bankroll important, early-stage research across the sciences. It’s true that without public funds from agencies like the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority or the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, global drug companies might not have developed Covid-19 vaccines so quickly. But here, the funding principally helped reduce risk and accelerate production timelines — the research and development were still driven by scientists in the private sector. Further, governments have neither the money nor the risk tolerance to take over the role of businesses in developing pharmacy-ready medicines.