With two-thirds of the world in lockdown and no clear way out of the novel coronavirus crisis, it’s increasingly obvious that biopharmaceutical innovation will play a pivotal role. A new treatment that can mitigate the worst effects of COVID-19, and ultimately a preventative vaccine, could, literally, save the world. Such life-saving technology is less likely to be forthcoming if, in their panic, governments sacrifice intellectual property (IP) rights for new COVID-19 therapeutics and vaccines. The signs are not promising. IP-skeptic governments in Chile and Ecuador have taken preemptive measures by permitting compulsory licensing of any new COVID-19-related technology. Otherwise innovation-friendly Canada and Germany have passed legislation to issue compulsory licenses more easily. Even in the United States—the center of modern biopharmaceutical innovation and a major player in ongoing COVID-19 research and development (R&D) efforts—there is pressure to break patents.
The cost of medicines is on the agenda this week at the World Health Organization’s annual executive board meeting in Geneva. Nongovernmental organizations and certain middle-income countries argue that market-based drug development—reliant on intellectual property rights (IPRs) as its primary incentive—makes medicines too expensive. It fails, they say, to provide cures for those most in need but least able to pay. On the fringes of meetings such as the one happening this week, nongovernmental organizations talk excitedly about a new model for drug development, in which research and development (R&D) costs are “delinked” from the final prices of drugs. They join notables such as U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz. One of the main “delinkage” proposals is to replace the patent system with government-managed prizes.