A Misguided Idea to Turn Over COVID Intellectual Property to Foreign Countries

John LaMattina

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For a scientist interested in discovering and developing new medicines that could benefit the world, there is no greater calling than to work in the pharmaceutical industry. Bringing one’s own particular expertise, be it chemistry, biology, computational science, etc., to a team of brilliant colleagues can be incredibly rewarding. Seeing the first-hand the dedication and determination, as well as managing the funding and deadlines that go into bringing a new medicine to market has been the highlight of my long career.

It was hard to not be part of that amazing process during the pandemic, when my former colleagues were working around the clock to bring a vaccine to the world.  I would be lying if I didn’t say I missed being part of that team.  

All of this is why I was shocked to learn that the Biden Administration has supported a plan by the World Trade Organization to force the pharmaceutical industry to turn over their COVID vaccine intellectual property to foreign countries. 

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What’s worse is there may be more to come. Now the WTO is looking to do the same with COVID treatments and therapeutics. 

The idea driving these moves is noble but misguided. Known as the TRIPs (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Proper Rights) Waiver the rationale is that giving the vaccine and other formulations to foreign countries will make vaccines and treatments more available. 

However, it’s not that simple.   The companies who have developed vaccines and treatments have a long history and experience in both the research and manufacturing of these products.  The ability to scale up to deliver millions of doses is not possible without deep knowledge and resources. 

Not to mention the impact it could have on industry jobs.  Currently, Connecticut is home to tens of thousands of biotechnology jobs.  But both here and across the country high paying R&D and manufacturing jobs could be headed overseas if there is less production happening here at home.  This flies in the face of many other industry’s post pandemic strategies to bring manufacturing back to the U.S. to eliminate reliance on foreign supply chains. 

Most importantly, there is no longer a shortage of vaccines.  In fact, some countries have been overwhelmed with shipments of vaccines from countries like the U.S. and had to pause their vaccination programs.  This was in part due to slow uptake because of vaccine hesitancy in nations such as South Africa, as well as poor distribution channels that prevented delivery of vaccines to areas where the necessary refrigeration wasn’t available.  These are the issues that need addressing before the next pandemic, not infringing on patent rights.

Finally, what message do these proposals send to the rest of the world and the investors who help support research?  

If previously protected patents can be given away against a company’s wishes, why would an investor put their money behind innovation?  

Losing that kind of investment will hit the biotech industry hard, but especially the small startups that are the first line investigators in the development of innovative cures. 

I urge the Connecticut Congressional delegation to speak up on behalf of not only the thriving biotech industry here at home, but across the country.  America is the world’s leader in medical breakthroughs—we need to protect that and tell the Biden administration to reject the TRIPs waiver proposal. 

LaMattina is former President, Pfizer Global Research and Development. He is the author of the book, “Profits and Pharma: Balancing Innovation, Medicine and Drug Prices”.   He lives in Stonington.