Innovation and ethics go hand in hand, especially in healthcare. COVID-19’s impact around the world highlights the importance of balancing ethics and intellectual property rights when lives are at risk.
The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) believes that in emergency situations, including the coronavirus pandemic, health and safety should come before patent rights. The World Health Organization (WHO) agrees, recently backing a Costa Rican proposal advocating for free access or affordable licencing for certain coronavirus-related innovations.
Despite these statements of solidarity, researchers and governments face many difficult ethical decisions as they fund and develop treatments and vaccines for COVID-19.
Pharmaceutical companies around the world are working to develop both treatments and vaccines to combat COVID-19 using new and repurposed technologies. To speed innovation, many pharmaceutical companies are partnering with each other, the public sector, and other third parties. These collaborations begin to break down the barriers these highly competitive companies build for intellectual property protection under normal circumstances.
Funding for research on drugs that are not immediately useful must also be considered based on their future value to society, insists Dr. Peter Hotez, co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital’s Center for Vaccine Development. He believes his potential SARS vaccine, which struggled to secure funding over the last decade as SARS faded from our collective memory, could have provided a foundation for a COVID-19 vaccine.
Researchers, chemists, biologists, and trial administrators are working to develop treatments and vaccines for COVID-19 at breakneck speeds. During clinical trials, subject safety must not be sacrificed while bringing a product to market quickly.
The organizations creating treatments and vaccines for COVID-19 will have invested substantial amounts of time and money into their inventions. Protecting this investment, in order to encourage innovation, is exactly why patents exist. Do companies still have a right to that protection during a global crisis? The answer to this question determines the availability of such treatments and vaccines. And if supply is limited, who gets what is available?
The WHO’s COVID-19 technology access pool includes guidelines for solidarity and equitable access. Publicly funded solutions should be “affordable, available and accessible to all on a global scale.” Intellectual property holders should voluntarily license or forgo enforcement of their rights on any relevant technologies. Only a few dozen Member States have endorsed this call to action.
If availability is limited, how do governments, hospitals and providers decide who gets what is available? This ethical dilemma is playing out already, as states distribute Gilead’s patented coronavirus treatment, remdesivir to patients in need.