Opinions and Editorials

Apr. 18, 2020

IP Watchdog: Don’t Let Life Sciences Innovation Become Another Coronavirus Casualty by Stephen Ezell and Philip Stevens

With two-thirds of the world in lockdown and no clear way out of the novel coronavirus crisis, it’s increasingly obvious that biopharmaceutical innovation will play a pivotal role. A new treatment that can mitigate the worst effects of COVID-19, and ultimately a preventative vaccine, could, literally, save the world.

Such life-saving technology is less likely to be forthcoming if, in their panic, governments sacrifice intellectual property (IP) rights for new COVID-19 therapeutics and vaccines.

The signs are not promising. IP-skeptic governments in Chile and Ecuador have taken preemptive measures by permitting compulsory licensing of any new COVID-19-related technology. Otherwise innovation-friendly Canada and Germany have passed legislation to issue compulsory licenses more easily.

Even in the United States—the center of modern biopharmaceutical innovation and a major player in ongoing COVID-19 research and development (R&D) efforts—there is pressure to break patents. In February, 46 members of Congress wrote to President Trump asking him to “use every tool of the federal government to ensure a coronavirus vaccine is affordable and accessible.” They also asserted that, “providing exclusive monopoly rights could result in an expensive medicine that is inaccessible, wasting public resources and putting public health at risk.”

The System is Working

But, in reality, the patent system is working very well. More than 140 experimental coronavirus treatments and vaccines are under development worldwide, including 11 in clinical trials. Another 254 clinical trials are underway for coronavirus treatments or vaccines derived from drugs already approved to treat other diseases. Life sciences companies everywhere are searching their patent and molecular reference libraries for promising compounds. The patent system has made all of this possible.