Intellectual Property Fuels Our Innovation Economy and Should Not Be Frivolously Surrendered
At the June 12-15 World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Summit, the Biden Administration is poised to give away one of our nation’s most valuable assets – the intellectual property (IP) underpinning the mRNA vaccines that have proved so vital to reducing deaths from COVID-19 and have allowed the world to begin a return to post-pandemic normalcy. This TRIPS waiver would upend decades of international IPR protection precedent.
The effort to suspend the IP rights (IPR) for COVID-19 treatments, vaccines and diagnostics guaranteed by the international Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) began in October 2020 – well before any vaccine was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration. India and South Africa petitioned the WTO to waive the provisions protecting this valuable IP arguing that surrendering it would ensure that COVID vaccines and treatments reached people living in the developing world. But providing low-income countries with refrigerated storage and placing health care workers on the ground would undoubtedly do more for vaccine uptake than surrendering our IP.
The world’s enthusiasm for getting its hands on America’s hard-won innovation is understandable – it’s a highly lucrative “gift.” That the United States Trade Representative Office (USTR) joined the European Union, India and South Africa to negotiate the TRIPS waiver defies comprehension. Years of research and billions of dollars of public and private investment went into the development of the mRNA platform. Both India and South Africa have robust generic drug manufacturing sectors and could potentially profit handsomely from this research and development while contributing nothing to it. China’s Sinovac and Sinopharm COVID vaccines are currently the most widely distributed globally but are not as effective as the inoculations using the mRNA technology. The TRIPS waiver would facilitate the PRC’s acquisition of this priceless innovation.
However, the greatest casualty of the TRIPS waiver might be the future medical innovation that could have been but is never developed. It costs $2.6 billion and takes 10-15 years to create one new medicine with no guarantee of success. Undermining the IPR that protects biotechnological breakthroughs will disincentivize pharmaceutical R&D investment in years to come putting the health and lives of all people at risk. This erosion of IPR compelled the directors of the US Patent and Trademark Office under both the Trump and Obama Administrations to oppose the TRIPS waiver along with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, including US Senator Mike Crapo of Idaho, the Chairman and Ranking Member of the US Senate Finance Committee. Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel and France’s President Emanuel Macron are also united in opposition to the WTO’s misguided, pending decision.
Protecting intellectual property rights in the United States can be traced to the Founding Fathers who equated IPR with natural rights and enshrined them in the US Constitution. A strong IPR regime has fueled America’s innovation economy, creating high-paying jobs and attracting the best talent around the world. However, in 2019, China overtook the United States in global patents filed for the first time and is edging closer to being in the top ten of the most innovative global economies according to the World Intellectual Property Organization’s (WIPO) Global Innovation Index. It is never a good moment to divest of America’s IP assets, but now is a particularly bad time to do so.