Covid patents and R&D races will save us, not the WHO

I do have some have sympathy for the well-intentioned academic call not to patent Covid inventions that are in the general interest, and for the call for compulsory licences and patent pools. However, this is not just a naïve thought. It is also a dangerous and counterproductive innovation policy that our society will end up complaining about in the long term. It will slow down access to vaccine technology and, worse still, dry up innovation. And that’s something none of us want. At least not if we believe that building artificial immunity with a vaccine is preferable to the 1.5-metre economy and the Western version of South Korean-style tracking & tracing. At this very moment, but above all for the next outbreaks of the virus that we can apparently expect.

Making vaccine technology freely available to everyone sounds good. Except it doesn't work that way. To tackle the debilitating battle with the virus, you need global scale in terms of research & development, competition between Messenger RNA, DNA and virus technology platforms and a differentiating patent portfolio that has evolved through decades of Ebola, HIV and influenza research. Not through revolutions caused by an amalgam that has gained free access to unpatented action mechanisms. If Paul Stoffels, Chief Scientific Officer at Johnson & Johnson, can now promise that we will have a remedy by approximately next spring, it is because they have built a technology platform that can develop vaccines at a speed that no pharmaceutical R&D expert considered possible.

We might not like to hear it, but this can only work if it is driven by a small number of global, capital-rich pharmaceutical companies at the heart of an ecosystem that builds on initial university research and has the scale to lead global distribution. Patents are the essential unit of account for this knowledge. They are essential as they allow all players – including small biotech companies and academic institutions – to capitalise on their share of value creation in the network and use it for further collaborative research.

Patent pools with the leading biopharmaceutical companies as the focal point can certainly be used to make co-creation run more efficiently and without overlap, as a basis for further innovation. Having emerged from the world of consumer electronics, they only lead to incremental innovation but are certainly a good idea when it comes to shaping collaboration in knowledge ecosystems. Provided, however, that patent rights are kept private and are certainly not enforced through compulsory licences. As a positive global knowledge-building structure, therefore. Not as a panacea advocated by some to finally teach the pharmaceutical world a lesson in humanity. Moreover, with the current research into a coronavirus vaccine – largely funded by the US taxpayer – they have already announced that they are working on a cost-plus basis.

In contrast to a wagging-finger policy of compulsory licensing and the misunderstood use of patent pools, public-private partnerships in which patent rights are retained by the innovator are actually a good idea. Especially if you use them to finance the competitive race to a vaccine. As a result, I strongly believe in Dr Fauci's Operation Warp Speed. Similar to the Manhattan project that invented the nuclear bomb to combat evil at the end of World War II, it unites pharmaceutical companies and the US government to significantly reduce the development time of a new COVID-19 vaccine and build US production capacity for promising vaccine candidates at a very early stage. All American companies participating in this programme have certainly committed themselves to making their resources available globally. America may therefore be ‘first’, but we and rest of the world can follow quickly (if we also have early production capacity, of course).

Compare this with the admittedly globally inspiring EU Donors' Conference, which secured pledges of 7.4 billion euros on Monday to fund the WHO's Covid-19 Tools Accelerator pool. Unfortunately, I know who will be re-elected if the American New Manhattan project yields results. And that will be because it will have delivered on hopes for a redeeming vaccine, and not just for the ‘deplorables’.

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