Op-Ed: How COVID Intellectual Property Waiver Could Sabotage Critical Cancer Research | national
President Joe Biden longs for a cure for cancer. In a speech to Congress this spring, he pledged to “end cancer as we know it.” And as vice president, he helped launch the Cancer Moonshot initiative.
Yet by supporting a global waiver of intellectual property (IP) rights for COVID-19 vaccines, President Biden may have put millions of Americans living with cancer at risk.
The Biden administration has said it will join a World Trade Organization decision to suspend intellectual property guarantees for vaccines. His intentions are undoubtedly sincere, based on the belief that a waiver will help rid the world of COVID-19. Yet the sidelining of intellectual property protections has consequences that the administration seems to have overlooked.
If passed, the waiver will not galvanize the supply of vaccines to the developing world – certainly not immediately. What it will do is threaten scientific innovation that could lead to cures for cancer and other diseases.
I will explain why. Technically, the US-backed waiver would only apply to intellectual property on COVID-19 vaccines. So what does this have to do with cancer?
There are two consequences. First, intellectual property underpins the incentives for scientists to make discoveries. Without exclusive “armor” to protect research, rivals could happily – and legally – use scientists’ know-how, data, or manufacturing processes.
Second, waiving intellectual property rights over the underlying vaccine technology has ramifications for drug innovation. Since the same technologies are used for potential treatments for other diseases, vaccine manufacturers should also forgo intellectual property rights on these projects.
Consider the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. They use “mRNA” to promote an immune response to COVID-19, a technology that has taken decades to develop. With the successful deployment of mRNA vaccines against COVID-19, researchers in the United States and Germany are now hoping to be able to use mRNA to fight other viruses. Moderna has active trials of mRNA vaccines against Zika, HIV and influenza.
Doctors and cancer patients pray that mRNA is the key to treatment. Moderna, in fact, has two mRNA vaccine candidates for cancer. Researchers hope mRNA could instruct the body to fight cancerous tumors like it fights a virus.
With the intellectual property waiver, Moderna’s mRNA technology could end up with rivals, leaving the company with significantly reduced incentives – and significantly reduced investment – to continue clinical trials on mRNA, including those against cancer. Advanced drug innovation could stop. What investor would fund biotech startups if imitators could get started?
This scenario is made particularly distressing by the fact that the benefits of renouncing intellectual property are negligible. Manufacturers need specialized facilities and hundreds of ingredients to make vaccines. Vaccine makers have entered into licensing deals to increase production. All the facilities on earth that can safely produce effective vaccines already do. Getting rid of the IP will not speed up the scaling. It could, however, trigger millions of low-quality copies and doses of counterfeit vaccines.
President Biden has shown how he can help immunize the world without holding mRNA research hostage. For example, it has already agreed to donate 580 million of the excess vaccine doses from the United States to COVAX – an initiative co-led by the WHO, CEPI and Gavi to distribute COVID-19 vaccines to developing countries. .
Along with President Biden, the cancer community has an ally in the White House. And yet, with the renunciation of intellectual property, it is undermining the only industry that could find a cure for cancer.
Andrew Spiegel, Esquire is the Executive Director of the Global Colon Cancer Association.