Opinion Piece: Who Deserves to Own it? Vaccine Patents in a Global Pandemic

Eugene J.

(Image source: https://unsplash.com/photos/CnDBjaddRWs)

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, a problem of legality arises: the question of vaccination patents. Countries and private institutions around the world are on a race to discover the first working vaccine against SARS-CoV-2, the elusive virus responsible for the disease aptly dubbed COVID-19. As with any other invention, the vaccine must have an owner— an institution that will benefit from the monetary gains of the vaccine, as well as take responsibility for any fatal errors.

During a pandemic such as the one we are experiencing today, there must be a delicate balance between protecting the lives of the public and granting intellectual property rights to the deserving entity. This brings up the General Assembly’s 4th issue, “the question of the ownership of vaccine patents and intellectual properties during epidemics and pandemics.”

The problem of vaccine ownership is not new. Most famously, in 1995, American virologist Jonas Salk successfully invented the polio vaccine after years of research and millions of dollars of funding. Salk chose not to patent the vaccine, because in his perspective, it would be as ludicrous as “patenting the sun.” Ultimately, Salk sacrificed 7 billion dollars but saved the lives of millions of people.

Not all researchers think like Salk, and with good reason. Without a monetary incentive, there would not be more than 120 different vaccines currently being researched. At the end of the day, vaccines are scientific knowledge, and despite Salk’s humble perspective, scientific researchers must be protected by intellectual property rights.

This discussion regarding the ownership of vaccine patents did not come as a surprise to the scientific community. In 2014, panelists at the BioVision Life Science forum predicted that vaccine patents may become an issue in the near future.  At the forum, an officer from the World Health Organization (WHO) urged the need for a system that manages vaccine patents in a “socially responsible manner.”

In the same way experts asked the world to anticipate an issue of vaccine patents, many warned national healthcare systems to prepare for a global pandemic. In a 2015 Ted Talk that resurfaced at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bill Gates explained that the world was not prepared to deal with an unavoidable pandemic in the near future.

At the center stage of this battle between discovering vaccines and owning vaccines is COVAX. Led by the WHO, COVAX is a global alliance of more than 172 countries which strive for the equal distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine. The alliance hopes that a country’s wealth will not be an obstacle in whether its citizens will have access to the vaccines.

The world must strike a balance in the question of vaccine ownership. If countries, instead of private institutions, have ownership of vaccines, it will be easier to make them virtually free as well as widely distributed. With this philosophy in mind, a group of researchers, scientists, academics, and lawyers created the Open COVID Pledge. This group of experts are calling for organizations to make “patents and copyrights freely available in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.”

At this point in time, the world can only hope the issue of vaccine patents yields a solution that benefits all. When a vaccine is finally available to the public, it is with an idealistic and slightly naïve heart that I hope everyone around the world is vaccinated against the virus that has turned this year upside down.