The development of coronavirus vaccines in the U.S. has been nothing short of a home run. Not only have three highly effective products been created, but distribution has outpaced most of the world. More than 260 million doses have been given in the U.S., while nearly half of Utah residents 16 years or older are fully protected.
The free market is largely to thank and an innovation machine that needs to be guarded. After the federal government temporarily removed a series of regulations and provided a stronger financial incentive, private pharmaceutical companies were able to quickly and safely bring effective vaccines to market. And once available, the already existent network of private retailers — including CVS and Walgreens — helped expand availability.
Even Dippin Dots, a brand of ice cream commonly enjoyed at sporting events and amusement parks, helped play a role. In addition to the company’s supply chain expertise of moving products at low temperatures, they even helped supply equipment capable of holding vaccines in a sub-zero environment.
Instead of promoting the achievement and fostering the free market mechanism in the pharmaceutical arena, some are proposing policies that will discourage it. President Biden, for example, is teaching a masterclass in how to compromise the U.S. response to future health crises.
The White House recently came out in support of waiving patent protections for coronavirus vaccines. If officially implemented, the move gives other companies, worldwide, the greenlight to use what would normally be proprietary information to copy the vaccines created by Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson. It’s the equivalent of Uncle Sam releasing the secret recipe of Coca Cola, giving other companies the knowledge to produce and profit off their own soda with the same flavor.
Although suspending intellectual property protections could lead to a ramp-up in coronavirus vaccine production in the short term, the unintended negative consequences in the long run will outweigh the benefits. Pharmaceutical companies would likely be discouraged from participating in future emergency research and development projects out of fear that the government will once again pull the rug out from underneath them.
Creating a new drug has a price tag of hundreds of millions of dollars and manufacturers need to believe they have a reasonable chance of recouping upfront costs without the government changing the rules of the game halfway through the match.
While I hate to say it, another public health crisis down the road is not only likely, but inevitable. We need to be ready. And one piece to that puzzle is ensuring the pharmaceutical industry is sufficiently motivated to develop even more life saving medications and therapies when called upon.
It’s also important to note the limitations other companies might have in mimicking vaccines if patent protections are lifted. Collecting the ingredients and successfully standing-up the complex manufacturing process is a hurdle that is not easily cleared. Doing so safely and effectively is another. Therefore, the jump in usable supply might not be as substantial as predicted.
The coronavirus pandemic has been a dark period for the world and it’s undeniable that free market innovation has helped save us. The mechanism should be strengthened, not weakened. That way, we’ll all be better off when the next pandemic heads our way.
Mary Tipton, M.D., is an internal medicine and pediatric specialist in South Jordan and a member of the Job Creators Network.