stiglitz271_ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDSAFP via Getty Images_coronavirusvaccines Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

Patents vs. the Pandemic

As researchers around the world rush to develop new diagnostics and treatments for COVID-19, we must not forget that such cooperation is an exception to the rule. In the absence of public intervention, we will remain reliant for life-saving drugs and vaccines on a monopoly-driven system that favors profits over people.

NEW YORK – Imagine a world in which a global network of medical professionals monitored for emerging strains of a contagious virus, periodically updated an established formula for vaccinating against it, and then made that information available to companies and countries around the world. Moreover, imagine if this work were done without any intellectual-property (IP) considerations, and without pharmaceutical monopolies exploiting a desperate public to maximize their profits.

This may sound like a utopian fantasy, but it is actually a description of how the flu vaccine has been produced for the past 50 years. Through the World Health Organization’s Global Influenza Surveillance and Response System, experts from around the world convene twice a year to analyze and discuss the latest data on emerging flu strains, and to decide which strains should be included in each year’s vaccine. As a network of laboratories spanning 110 countries, funded almost entirely by governments (and partly by foundations), GISRS epitomizes what Amy Kapczynski of Yale Law School calls “open science.”

Because GISRS is focused solely on protecting human lives, rather than turning a profit, it is uniquely capable of gathering, interpreting, and distributing actionable knowledge for the development of vaccines. While this approach may have been taken for granted in the past, its advantages are quickly becoming clear.

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