Vaccine patents lead to a moral crossroads

Patent and intellectual property regulations intersect with global health issues and the ethics of medical business. Sounds complicated, right? In many cases, it would be. In the case that global leaders face right now, these issues boil down to a much simpler problem than it may initially seem. Leaders in business and government, especially those hailing from the largest corporations and richest nations, need to answer the call of this situation with an ethical and moral response. They need to make vaccines available to all.

A simple explanation of the quandary currently facing the world’s leaders is this: a small number of big companies control the intellectual property rights for proven vaccines. Wealthy nations like the United States are able to wield their economic power to place massive orders with these companies for their vaccines. As these companies can only produce so much, this leaves other countries unable to get the supplies they need. If these big companies let go of their holds on patents, smaller companies may be able to use the big ones’ proven formulas to produce additional much-needed doses. Of course, that would not help the big corporations’ bottom lines in the same way that it would help people in need.

The battle over this decision is being waged at very high levels. As of early May, India and South Africa are leading around 60 countries in petitioning the World Trade Organization to waive intellectual property regulations for the vaccines. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont led 10 Senators in recently calling on President Joe Biden to support the waiving effort. He eventually agreed, a major victory for progressive advocates. Meanwhile, corporations are going to bat and arguing against the waiver. Some claim that world manufacturers would not be able to produce more even with the waiver. However, that may not be true according to some others, and even if it is, a waiver would only serve to increase possible future production. Other than massive corporations’ profits, the waiver cannot hurt anyone or anything. As such, the decision really comes down to whether those profits are more important to leaders than the potential of saving lives with more vaccines going out more quickly.

By the time this article is published, it’s possible that the waiver debate will have already been resolved in one way or another. However, the critical impacts of this decision have ramifications far beyond the present situation. Morals and ethics are at stake here. Each nation and its leaders will leave a lasting legacy with their decision on whether to support waiving patents. Do they support big pharma and the profits of giant companies? Or do they support their citizens’ health and wellness being prioritized? They must choose which of those two paths they will take. It is critical that the world goes down a path that prioritizes people, not profits, and that is what this decision represents.