Updated: March 4, 2021 5:54:34 pm
Written By Patrick Kilbride
Since the beginning of time, pandemics have found their way to make a mark on human history. Though the days of the Antonine Plague in 165 AD or the medieval Black Death that took over 200 million lives are far gone, today’s global pandemic has proven to be just as terrifying.
In midst of such chaos, however, pandemics have also pushed humans to ever-greater heights of science, innovation, and public health. The practice of “quarantine” for instance, or quaranta giorni, found its beginnings in the disease-ravaged coasts of Italy, where ships must drop anchor and isolate for 40 days. Nearly one year after the global pandemic changed our lives forever, we have witnessed a true breakthrough: Multiple viable vaccines have been developed, manufactured, and distributed to people.
As the race for the COVID-19 vaccine transitions into ever greater global distribution, the pall of fear brought by the pandemic promises to gradually lift. The private sector, with its unique know-how in R&D, manufacturing at scale, and logistics, will play a key role in ending this pandemic for good. But these companies cannot do so without IP protections. These laws do more than just protect years of investments and hours of research, they encourage good business practices. Let’s take, for instance, a counterfeit product developed without IP—in fact, the producer stole someone else’s IP. That producer, operating outside of this system, is not held to the same high standards of patient safety or efficacy. IP, then, helps to organise and formalise rules surrounding innovative products—ensuring that they can do the most good.
At the same time, stakeholders are rightfully concerned about ensuring widespread, efficient access to COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. The Earth’s population in 2020 was estimated to be nearly 8 billion people—no easy task, for sure. To address this challenge, some countries at the World Trade Organisation TRIPS Council have proposed overriding aspects of the global IP system to encourage greater access to vaccines and other pandemic solutions. No doubt, this proposal is well-intentioned—and attractive to countries like India, which must vaccinate more than 1 billion people. However, it is a solution in search of a problem, and disregards the role of IP laws in bringing us to the point where we can defeat this virus. The most promising vaccines, including those from Moderna, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, and others, were developed in the countries with the strongest IP systems. When such companies, with huge capital investments sunk into R&D enter markets where their research is likely to be replicated or stolen due to the absence of patent protection, it discourages them from bringing their well-researched advancements to the world. Rather than upend the global intellectual property system that enables the development of solutions, the answer for India is to embrace a proven IP model and work with other countries on that basis to become an ever-greater supplier of innovative vaccines and treatments.
IP laws enable innovations that would simply not exist without significant financial and labour investments. The advancement of an ever-improving standard of care through breakthrough innovations and incremental improvements in therapies is at the core of a modern healthcare system. Over the years, researchers have toiled to perfect these products and improve the lives of people around the world. They have succeeded–effectively decreasing the disease burden of humankind’s most life-threatening illnesses, including HIV-AIDS, cancer, and now, COVID-19. To secure as yet unmet health needs – including the next pandemic — it is vital that their ability to innovate is protected by a financial model that replenishes investments in a sustained pipeline of new research and development. Strong, transparent, reliable patent protections are a key first step. Patents are the ownership vehicle that enables investment in new capabilities and facilitates partnerships with stakeholders throughout a diverse innovation ecosystem.
India’s relationship with global IP laws dates to the country’s membership in the World Trade Organisation and the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights Agreement (TRIPS). The TRIPS Agreement “sets the minimum standards of regulation of intellectual property laws by the member nations’ governments and talks about the essential features of intellectual property laws”. Countries like India, with the world’s second-largest population, must necessarily consider the implications of IP laws for both innovation and access to innovative products, such as vaccines. Fortunately, a careful look at the economics of innovation argues that strong intellectual property laws promote both. And in the long-term, mere alignment with the minimum standards of the TRIPS Agreement should be seen as a stepping stone to a more ambitious framework of TRIPS-plus rules to enable the knowledge-driven economy –- the fourth industrial revolution – that Indian government and industry want to construct. To achieve that ambition, India must make a choice.
Fortunately, the trajectory that was launched with the 2016 National IPR Policy has been upwards. One recent signal of this sustained directional pivot for India was the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the DPIIT and the US Patent and Trademark Office. This was the first time this workstream had been revived in a number of years, and shows India’s enthusiasm to leverage its innovative strengths to lift up its domestic economy and drive global growth. At the same time, its posturing at the WTO TRIPS Council, driven by short-term political considerations and despite the overwhelming evidence that IP is creating the availability of vaccines, has unfortunately clouded the narrative. Looking ahead, it would be a mistake to undermine the progress that has been achieved to date by reversing the very intellectual property policies that made it possible. The Indian governments have a critical role to play in delivering innovation to solve the pandemic to the global South. If it does so while reinforcing the multilateral IP architecture that has enabled a rapid and effective response to COVID-19 it will emerge as a stronger competitor than ever in the global knowledge economy.
The writer is senior Vice President, Global Innovation Policy Center, US Chamber of Commerce