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Stripping intellectual property rights would prevent life-saving cures for America’s seniors

By Saul Anuzis.-

The Biden administration just announced its support for a global effort to cancel intellectual property protections on Covid-19 vaccines.

This decision is misguided at best, and life-threatening to vulnerable Americans, at worst.

The proposal would do nothing to advance its goal of boosting vaccine access across the globe. It would, however, stifle the development of breakthrough therapies for a slew of diseases — including Alzheimer’s, rheumatoid arthritis and cancer — that disproportionately impact America’s seniors.

The proposal, which is under consideration at the World Trade Organization, was originally submitted by India and South Africa in October. They claim that pharmaceutical firms’ intellectual property protections are impeding vaccine manufacturing and preventing doses from reaching developing countries.

But that isn’t the case at all. Leading vaccine developers — the likes of AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, Moderna and Pfizer — have all agreed to let foreign manufacturers license their patents at little to no cost.

These companies are also taking additional steps to make doses available to developing countries as quickly, safely, and equitably as possible. Johnson & Johnson, for instance, pledged to allocate up to 500 million vaccines to lower-income countries. Meanwhile, AstraZeneca promised not to take any profits from its Covid vaccine while the pandemic persists.

In reality, the obstacles to getting more vaccines in more arms boil down to two factors: insufficient infrastructure and inadequate raw materials.

Every manufacturing facility capable of producing the vaccines is already doing do. But there’s a global shortage of the raw materials needed to manufacture the shots themselves. And compounding those challenges, many countries lack the ultra-cold transportation and storage capabilities required to keep mRNA vaccines from spoiling.

Intellectual property rights play no part in these barriers. But nullifying them — as the WTO proposal seeks to do — would prevent future medical breakthroughs.

Consider the cutting-edge technology underpinning the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna Covid-19 vaccines. Both use messenger RNA, or mRNA — which scientists have researched for decades but never successfully incorporated into a vaccine or therapy until now — to trigger an immune response that helps our bodies fight off the coronavirus.

That technology holds the key to unlocking cures for a number of debilitating diseases that plague America’s seniors. For example, mRNA-based therapeutics have shown early promise in treating — and even preventing — Alzheimer’s and dementia. Personalized mRNA vaccines are also in the works to eliminate melanoma, and colorectal and prostate cancer.

Unfortunately, the development of these vaccines and treatments — along with countless others — could well be abandoned if the WTO proposal is approved.  

If the rights to any useful drug could be stolen from its creators and given, for free, to other companies, few companies would be willing to make such enormous investments. Potential breakthroughs will never advance beyond the lab for lack of funding.

President Biden would do well to reconsider his stance on the WTO proposal. Backing it will not only fail to help in the battle against Covid-19, but it’ll also make America’s seniors more vulnerable in the long run.

Saul Anuzis is President of 60 Plus, the American Association of Senior Citizens.

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