by Nancy La, Staff Writer

If the invention of the vaccine is humanity’s greatest gift, then the concept of medical patents is our greatest curse. News of vaccine shipments being delayed and affecting the global supply chain presents a glaring question: why are there so few companies in charge of making vaccines? Surely there must be other factories and companies willing to help with production? 

The answer lies in medical patents, and it is this legal status that allowed for large pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer to “artificially ration” the COVID-19 vaccines. By keeping the medical patent to the vaccine, Pfizer, along with other brands such as Moderna and Astra-Zeneca, are prolonging the pandemic by slowing down herd immunity at the cost of human lives.

A patent is a form of protection for intellectual property. More specifically, a medical patent pertains to pharmaceuticals, including their production methods and ways to use them. Patentees (companies who are awarded patents) will have exclusive rights to market and produce the product for a certain number of years, usually 20. Ideally, by giving a company this monopoly — where they are the only one making and selling a certain product — the revenue will make up for the patentee’s initial investment in the research and development of the product.

In the beginning, patents are a way for the government to incentivize companies to advance medical research and development. Yet, as we can see with the COVID-19 vaccine, having pharmaceutical companies be the only ones in charge of making and distributing vaccines during a pandemic is ineffective and unethical.

Groups such as the People’s Vaccine Alliance are campaigning for a “people’s vaccine” for COVID-19. They point out companies such as Pfizer and Moderna are “putting up barriers to restrict production and drive up prices” by refusing to suspend intellectual property rights. For pharmaceutical companies, earning revenue from a pandemic that has already killed millions is an acceptable practice. How can we trust they will do what is best for humanity when they approach a health crisis as a business opportunity?

Oxfam, a supporter of the People’s Vaccine Alliance, published a report on how companies like Pfizer, Moderna, and Astra-Zeneca plan to produce enough for a third of the world’s population. But because rich countries around the world buy multiple doses of vaccines, the actual coverage of the vaccine is less than projected. As rich countries hoard vaccines, countries with less buying power are left vulnerable to contracting the virus.

Anna Marriott, Oxfam’s health policy manager, points to pharmaceutical companies for creating this health disparity in the first place. “By refusing to share their technology and waive their intellectual property, companies like Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech, are artificially rationing the supply of successful vaccines with the hopes of reaping huge financial rewards.”

Other vaccine production companies, such as GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), Merck, and Sanofi, have the production capabilities to increase the global vaccine supply but have been unable to due to longer trial periods and lack of funds. If Pfizer, Moderna, and Astra-Zeneca are willing to share their vaccine findings and waive their patents, these major vaccine producers can help ramp up production and help balance out the global market need and supply for vaccines.

It must be noted that the initial investment for Pfizer and Moderna, which kickstarted their research on the COVID-19 vaccine, came from taxpayers. Moderna, for example, was funded by the US National Institutes of Health. BioNTech, Pfizer’s partner in developing the vaccine, received $445 million in funding from the German government. This means the vaccines these companies developed are a part of a public good funded by the people. It makes no sense for them to be the ones holding patents on COVID-19 vaccines.

Pharmaceutical companies were not the only ones who invested in research and development, but the governments and their people did too. Capitalism, enabled by means of medical patents leading to market monopolies, cheated the people. Governments now have to pay Pfizer and Moderna for vaccines, but these companies have no ethical or moral grounds to be charging money for their products.

With scientists predicting we will need booster shots for COVID-19 once the pandemic is over, there is a legitimate worry that one day, the vaccines will no longer be free to the public. Pharmaceutical companies are reported to keep prices for the vaccines down during the pandemic for the sake of optics and goodwill, but they are expecting to raise prices once the pandemic is over. With the price of a regular Pfizer pneumococcal vaccine clocking in at $200 per dose, we can expect these pharmaceutical companies to use these COVID-19 booster shots to make even more money.

Capitalist markets have veered pharmaceutical companies away from doing what is right, instead pushing them to do what brings in revenue. This “money first” mentality no longer deserves to be protected by patent laws, which were meant to drive innovation and research for the public good. Continuing to allow patents to be exploited for money with no restrictions no longer serves its intended purpose of helping advance technology for all of us.

Even during one of humanity’s greatest health crises, we are seeing pharmaceutical companies refuse to share their patents and vaccine knowledge with others to help end the pandemic. This selfishness of prioritizing profits costs human lives. The only way to ensure health equity for all is by taking action. 

Joining causes such as the People’s Vaccine Alliance and placing political pressure on governments to waive vaccine patents for the COVID-19 vaccine is the beginning. We cannot expect companies to do what is right in a capitalist market where money is generated off of a public health crisis.