Patent Rights and COVID—Profits Versus People

Over the past several months, COVID-19 vaccines have been rolling out, marking an important milestone in the fight against the novel coronavirus. We are a global community, which means that the more people all over the world who get vaccinated against this virus, the better protected the population is against the emerging mutated variants.

One obstacle to this goal is the patent rights to these vaccines. Patents are basically the property rights for a specific product, like a vaccine or drug. When pharmaceutical companies get patents, they own the rights to the drug in question for 10 years. The patent contains the “recipe” for the drug, the manufacturing process, and all other necessary details to produce it. After the patent expires, other companies are allowed to produce the drugs under generic names, and typically for cheaper.

Naturally, pharmaceutical companies, like all capitalist enterprises, want to protect their money-making schemes, so patent rights are treated as a reward to companies making new innovations, and the ethics of them are rarely questioned. But the pandemic shows how much this needs to be re-examined.

This past week, the World Trade Organization (WTO) proposed that intellectual property rights, and by extension patents, should be waived for all COVID-19 vaccines. This decision was fueled by the dire global situation of higher-income countries reaching higher vaccination rates, while lower-income countries are stagnating because of lack of access to vaccines. India, coincidentally the world’s biggest producer of vaccines, only has a vaccination rate of 2% right now, and is experiencing a deadly catastrophe.

President Biden agreed with the WTO, and said that waiving these property rights will be an important step in ending the global pandemic.  But his administration made clear that this would be a limited waiver and that they supported property rights like this in general. Apparently if the deaths stopped mounting now, they would be satisfied with the drug companies’ profiteering up to this point. And, even if the drug companies give up their patents, it could take years and huge investments for the rest of the world to develop the facilities to support the complex processes of COVID vaccine production.

So let’s ask ourselves a couple of questions. Did it really have to take a global pandemic, resulting in over three million people dying to make this decision against intellectual property and patent rights? How many people need to die to force those in power into action, and cut short the massive profits of the pharmaceutical industry for the better good of the planet?

We know all of the answers to these questions. No, millions of people didn’t need to die from COVID-19, and the only profiteers of the intellectual property rights are the pharmaceutical corporations that care more about their money than about the global population.

Let’s ask ourselves one last question. How would we, the normal working people of the world, have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic if the decision-making was up to us?