Industry and many countries warned that, without patents and other forms of intellectual property such as trade secrets, the world risked not developing vaccines and drugs needed to manage the COVID-19 and future pandemics. But the reality is that what pulled development forward was public procurement contracts that promised vaccine and antiviral developers billions of dollars. Even before the pandemic, when mRNA vaccines were just a hope, it was public sector investments that largely underwrote the technology and it was public investments in both Moderna and BioNTech that pushed development before there was a vaccine to procure.
Earlier vaccines also relied on the public sector. The Ebola vaccine, now controlled by Merck, was developed and paid for by the Canadian government in national labs. Even the clinical trials during the 2014 Ebola crisis were sponsored by public entities and philanthropies. A key component of the mRNA vaccines - the lipid nanoparticle - was largely developed through public funding of researchers at the University of British Columbia. Vaccines have and will continue to be brought forward through public sector investments.
While patents may not have been a prime incentive for vaccines and antivirals, they have been a significant factor in restricting access to them, decreasing the trust of the Global South in vaccines and therapies, and in increasing reliance of the Global South on the beneficence - too often not actualized - of rich countries and patent holders. Certainly gifting vaccines is helpful, but doing so does not provide the Global South with the ability to look after its own citizens when rich country governments restrict exports, a phenomenon sadly displayed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even industry recognizes the impediments that patents impose. Moderna is countering a claim that it infringed a patent not by saying that it did not use the technology, but by arguing it was exempt from having to honor patents. Pfizer is defending a suit from Moderna over vaccine-related technology. While neither lawsuit will prevent access to vaccines, they increase the costs of the system; costs that are borne by poor as much as rich countries.
Nobody suggests that intellectual property did not play a role in developing the platforms upon which current technology stands. Nobody ignores the critical role that industry played in bringing forward vaccines and antivirals in record time. I, for one, am grateful. But gratefulness for the science and effort should not blind us to what made the system work: massive amounts of public sector and philanthropic funding.
COVID-19 is only the latest in a series of pandemics and will not be last, although one hopes the next pandemic will cause less harm. Once we realize that intellectual property was not the prime driver of innovation, we open ourselves to a world of possibilities to proactively prepare the world for the next crisis. Through rapid sharing, open science partnerships, research and development hubs in the Global South, and other strategies drawing on government funding - at a fraction of the cost of an actual pandemic - we can proactively develop antivirals now that we can more quickly deploy during the next pandemic and develop the manufacturing platforms around the globe to rapidly produce vaccines near to where they are needed when the next crisis hits.
The COVID-19 crisis took the blinders off our eyes. Now is the time to use our restored sight to ensure we are ready next time.