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Should Big Pharma be forced to give away vaccine tech?

One report that’s come out this week tells the story of multiple pharmaceutical manufacturing plants in Africa and Southeast Asia that are capable of producing vaccines in large quantities but are mostly sitting idle. The reason for this is that they don’t know how to make the new COVID vaccines being produced by Pfizer and Moderna or Johnson&Johnson. Without the knowledge and the legal authorization from the major pharmaceutical companies that own the rights to the medication, they can’t go into production. This has led critics from places including the United Nations’ World Health Organization to cry foul, saying that this is a global emergency and the companies should step up getting their technology distributed to all the places capable of producing vaccines as rapidly as possible. But as we’ve learned in too many previous cases, once the intellectual property horse is out of the barn there’s no point in trying to close the doors. (Associated Press)

Across Africa and Southeast Asia, governments and aid groups, as well as the WHO, are calling on pharmaceutical companies to share their patent information more broadly to meet a yawning global shortfall in a pandemic that already has claimed nearly 2.5 million lives. Pharmaceutical companies that took taxpayer money from the U.S. or Europe to develop inoculations at unprecedented speed say they are negotiating contracts and exclusive licensing deals with producers on a case-by-case basis because they need to protect their intellectual property and ensure safety.

Critics say this piecemeal approach is just too slow at a time of urgent need to stop the virus before it mutates into even deadlier forms. Last month, WHO called for vaccine manufacturers to share their know-how to “dramatically increase the global supply.”

The AP report paints a dire picture of “privilege” versus poverty, and some of the points they are making can’t simply be brushed away. Thus far, 80% of the vaccinations that have taken place across the entire planet have been injected in just ten countries, and they are the usual suspects you would expect. The United States and many of our North American and European allies are getting most of the doses currently being delivered. South America, Africa and large parts of Asia aren’t doing nearly as well. In more than 200 countries with a combined population of 2.5 billion, there hasn’t been a single vaccine injected. Unless both manufacturing capacity and global distribution increase rapidly, a lot of people will be left behind.

With all that said, however, we shouldn’t pretend that this is a challenge where a ready solution is available at the snap of your fingers. First of all, it’s not as if the companies who created the vaccines haven’t been trying to outsource the work. Pfizer has already licensed several companies to begin production and the others are working on sealing similar deals as well. Production levels have been steadily increasing and are expected to continue to do so.

Every factory capable of making vaccines needs to come to its own arrangement with the vaccine inventors. The WHO’s sunshine and flowers approach certainly sounds wonderful, but the companies who developed these vaccines are private sector businesses. If they simply give the technology away to everyone in the world that asks, they won’t be in business for very long.

Some may argue that Pfizer and J&J both took money from the federal government to help develop the vaccines at the fastest rate possible. (This point was brought up in the linked article.) So if taxpayer money was involved, does that mean the public now has partial “ownership” of not only the doses but the pharmaceutical technology behind them? Nope. That was a deal that the government offered the companies and they took it. They agreed to use the funds to expedite the development, not as part of an agreement to sell any of their intellectual property.

None of this comes as much comfort to the people in the countries that still aren’t getting any vaccines. And yet we have to recognize our own limits here. There were complaints coming from social justice warriors about “vaccine nationalism” before the first shipments ever went out. But we were always going to take care of our own people first. That’s part of the primary function of the government. You put on your own oxygen mask before helping anyone else with theirs or else you might not survive to render that help.

Expecting Pfizer or J&J to simply give away their technology isn’t practical. If it can be shown that they could be making licensing deals faster than they are, then perhaps they need a hand in that department. But until then, we just need to keep pushing production and distribution as hard as we can. We’ll get there eventually.