Virologist and medical researcher Jonas Salk developed a successful polio vaccine that was approved in 1955, helping the world all but eradicate the disease.
When the late journalist Edward Murrow asked Salk who owned that vaccine’s patent, he famously responded, “Could you patent the sun?” It was in large part his commitment to keeping the jab’s recipe open-source that vaccines were produced globally and millions around the world were able to get it.
As the covid-19 health crisis unfolds, multinational pharmaceutical corporations like Moderna and Pfizer have taken a different approach. Their tight hold on the technology for their covid-19 vaccines has made them billions of dollars. While these strict intellectual property laws protections have allowed the rich to get even richer, they’ve put a damper on efforts to manufacture vaccines at scale. And with supply limited, the U.S. and other rich nations have engaged in bilateral negotiations with pharmaceutical corporations and hoarded all the doses they can, leaving poor nations in the dust.
The loss of life and suffering sparked by these strict patent protections are a major warning sign for our climate future. To avert environmental catastrophe, everyone needs access to clean energy. Intellectual property law could get in the way of that. And in the end, we could all suffer the consequences of a clean energy apartheid.
At its general council meeting next week, the World Trade Organization has the opportunity to help staunch the spread of covid-19 by waiving some protections on covid-19 vaccines developed by Moderna and Pfizer under the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights Agreement. More than 100 nations, including India, have urged it to do. The Biden administration is reportedly considering endorsing this move, though then again, it’s been reportedly “considering” it for months.
This isn’t just something World Trade Organization negotiators should do out of the goodness of their hearts—though it absolutely is that, assuming they have hearts. Failing to do so could result in variants that bypass vaccines, which could harm those lucky enough to have gotten the shot and send the world economy back into a tailspin.
“As the pandemic ravages the Global South, what are wealthy northern countries going to do? Just completely ban all contact with poorer countries? It won’t work,” said Basav Sen, climate justice project director at the Institute for Policy Studies. “It is extremely short-sighted to push this kind of logic of intellectual property and corporate profit over what is clearly a prominent threat for all of humanity.”