Are Patent-Free Covid Vaccines a Possibility?

The push to get Americans vaccinated continues to pick up momentum. Governors and public health officials in more than 40 states have said they will meet or beat President Biden’s goal of making every adult eligible for a vaccine by May 1, and at least 30 states have already started to plan for universal eligibility. But, a year ago, President Biden offered a tantalizing response to a question following up on his support for worldwide dissemination for Covid-19 vaccines.

“If the U.S. discovers a vaccine first, will you commit to sharing that technology with other countries, and will you ensure there are no patents to stand in the way of other countries and companies mass-producing those lifesaving vaccines?”

Biden was unequivocal. “It lacks any human dignity, what we’re doing,” he said of Trump’s vaccine isolationism. “So, the answer is yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. And it’s not only a good thing to do, it’s overwhelmingly in our interest to do.” [1]

Big Pharma must have been immensely alarmed. It’s protection of intellectual property is its golden egg, something that it has guarded for decades. The notable case of Henrietta Lacks, who turned out to have a highly unusual and therefore extremely valuable strain of cancer, led to her line of cells now being disseminated for laboratory use worldwide. Yet Henrietta, a poor black woman who gave this gift to the world never saw a penny in return. The cells even have a name – the HeLa strain. The story of their use not only became a best-selling book but also later even became a movie.  The significance of the pharmaceutical industry’s practice in this regard and its implications for economics and commerce are fraught with ethical dimensions. A second best seller grew out of this story as well, one by a notable scientist and writer, Harriett Washington.[2]

The idea that animals, plants, or any parts of them should become property to be bought, sold, rented or employed for commercial gain in any other way is of relatively recent origin.  Indeed, in March 1953, in a TV interview with Edward Murrow, Jonas Salk famously reacted differently. Right at the beginning of the interview, there was this famous exchange:[3]

Murrow: Who owns the patent on this vaccine?

Salk (shocked face): Well… the people I would say. There is no patent… Could you patent the sun?

The practice of patenting elements of nature seems quite common. Panela, a form of sugar commonly found in Latin America, has just been awarded a patent. A shareholder at one of Colombia’s largest sugar companies, was awarded U.S. Patent No. 10,632,167, which described a method for making an unrefined sugar containing high levels of policosanols — alcohols found in sugar cane wax that are purported to lower cholesterol. Throughout the region, people were bewildered: “Who would Dare Patent Panela?”[4]

Those of us of a Georgist persuasion regard patents on elements of nature, at least as applied in the today’s commercial world, as anathema. Natural-occurring products are the birthright of all humanity, all should share the dividends and benefits. Henry George lived and wrote, “the term land embrace[d], in short, all natural materials, forces and opportunities, and therefore nothing that is freely supplied by nature [could] be properly classified as capital.”[5] Today, that definition is easily expanded; Among many elements of nature with market value are wind, water, and weather, the electromagnetic spectrum, air and sea ways, the genetic codes of all living things, and even evolving social products like language and folklore.  With Henry George’s elementary notion of land comes what are labeled “gifts of nature.”  Unfortunately, these gifts are increasingly privatized, hoarded, and marketed in ways that distress many elements of the population the world over. In India, noted scientist and writer Vandana Shiva, has written many books harping on just this very theme.[6] Most of these remedies found in nature have spread worldwide.  In India, a common homeopathic medication is neme; in Africa, it is the common plant aloe; in Central and Latin America it is now panela.

In 1962 to 1965, when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Northern Thailand, widespread appeals were made to many of us to be on the lookout for native nostrums that American pharmaceutical companies might wish to have referred to them.  No doubt, there were many right in my region, commonly known as the “Golden Triangle.”  I never took the time or effort to explore any. Today, many medications are imported from countries like Thailand and India, even when American corporations hold the patents.

The irony at the moment is that the Covid-19 virus and many variants is spreading madly in India, while they don’t have the resources to manufacture and disseminate vaccines sufficiently to stem the spread.

A column recently published in The NY Times concludes with this observation:

“Last year, India and South Africa requested a waiver from World Trade Organization rules governing intellectual property for technology dealing with the pandemic. Dozens of mostly developing countries have since joined them. A handful of rich nations, including the United States, oppose the waiver, but there’s a widespread belief that if America changes its position, other countries will follow. Much of the world is waiting to see what Biden does.”


[1] Quoted in the New York Times on April 23, 2021, in a column by Michelle Goldberg, “Biden, the World Needs Your Help to End the Pandemic.”

[2] Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Crown Books, 2011, and Harriett A. Washington, Deadly Monopolies: The Shocking Corporate Takeover of Life Itself–And the Consequences for Your Health and Our Medical Future, Anchor Books, 2012.

[3] https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20200326/10100644177/67-years-ago-today-jonas-salk-announced-polio-vaccine-did-not-patent-it.shtml

[4] Jennie Erin Smith, “Colombians Ask: Who would dare patent Panela?”  New York Times, January 26, 2021.

[5] Henry George, Progress and Poverty.  Robert Schalkenbach Foundation, 1925 edition, p. 38.

[6] Shiva, Vandana. Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge. Boston: South End Press, 1997. Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply. South End Press, 2000, and Protect or Plunder: Understanding Intellectual Property Rights. London: Zed Books, 2001.

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