When asked who owned the patent to his life-altering polio vaccine, Jonas Salk famously replied, “The people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” In the last few years of the polio epidemic that gripped America in the 1940s and 50s, tens of thousands of children were paralyzed per year, often with permanently life-changing consequences. Salk’s foundation gave the formula and production processes for his polio vaccine to pharmaceutical manufacturers for free—a decision that marked a monumental step in eradicating the polio virus not only in the United States, but around the world.
Today, a different pandemic grips our world. Yet in the much-lauded scientific race to produce a vaccine against COVID-19, there has been a clear absence of Jonas Salk-inspired humanitarianism. Companies like Moderna and Pfizer have taken the spotlight for their lightning fast response in innovating mRNA vaccines, and their success is extolled in spectacular capitalist fashion. Stock tickers skyrocket and vaccine company executives quietly sell their shares of stock, making millions of dollars. Lucky investors clink champagne glasses and toast the wonders of the free market. Meanwhile, the rest of the developing world waits in anxious hope for the miracle drug to reach them. The nonprofit Oxfam has announced that 90 percent of people in developing nations will not be vaccinated in 2021. To date, all of Moderna and Pfizer’s vaccine doses have been bought up by rich, Western nations. The celebratory dynamism of American industry runs in stark contrast to the desperation of a pandemic-stricken developing world.
The call for equality in access to vaccines has been taken up by many. Healthcare advocates around the globe, such as consumer advocate Peter Maybarduk and UNAIDS Director Winnie Byanyima, have increasingly demanded recognition of a “people’s vaccine.” They demand companies like Moderna and Pfizer recognize the collaborative effort that resulted in the innovation of a COVID-19 vaccine. They demand that major pharmaceuticals waive their patent rights so that generic versions of vaccines can be produced and distributed to poorer nations. They demand that equity go before profit. For the most part, they are on the losing end of a well-heeled, well-armed pharmaceutical industry. But the fight goes on.
For all the lengths that vaccine companies go to defend their intellectual property, they cannot ignore the basic fact that the vaccine isn’t truly theirs. It’s ours. Government institutions like the National Institute of Health fund billions of dollars worth of basic biomedical research every year. Public funding for universities across the country helped generate record-breaking amounts of COVID-related discoveries this year. And Operation Warp Speed pumped over ten billion extra dollars into the vaccine race. Where did all of that money come from? Us. The taxpaying public. The American people. We have funded every step of this vaccine, from its invention to its distribution. The pioneering design of a viral protein used to deliver the vaccine was made by an NIH scientist at Vanderbilt. The groundbreaking discovery that mRNA could be used to make vaccines was discovered by two scientists in a University of Pennsylvania laboratory. They were rewarded with neither a patent nor a penny for their labor. In the dog-eat-dog world of pharmaceuticals, bigger giants like Moderna and Pfizer often don’t do the work of discovery themselves—they merely pay for patent rights and refine the final product. Years of basic research conducted by underpaid scientists and technicians and funded by you and me ultimately end up being the sole intellectual property of a company like Pfizer.
They could be excused for this if they made special considerations for a global pandemic. But for the most part, they haven’t. Despite calls for open-sourced data, vaccine companies have been anything but transparent to the public. Government contracts with big companies remain secretive. Frustration has been increasing, especially among poorer nations who have the resources to manufacture the vaccines in their own factories, but aren’t allowed to. In a recent World Trade Organization meeting, delegations from India and South Africa proposed waiving patent protections for COVID-19 vaccines until the majority of the world’s population had been vaccinated against the coronavirus. They were met with stiff opposition by the United States and the European Union, two regions home to the world’s leading vaccine companies—effectively ending hope for the petition. Pharmaceutical lobbyists with major political clout have so far been successful in arguing that making exceptions for one global pandemic will hurt the industry’s ability to innovate in the future, since investors won’t want to finance new tech without strong patent protections.
Only one drugmaker seems to be open to a more equitable distribution. AstraZeneca, the only major company whose drug was developed in a partnership with a public university (Oxford University), announced that it would reserve 64% of its vaccine doses for developing nations. It was also the first to announce that it would sell 1.24 billion doses of vaccine to developing nations through two partnerships: one with an Indian drugmaker and one with COVAX, the UN initiative to fund poorer nations’ vaccination efforts through a partnership with richer nations. Pfizer and Moderna, conspicuously, both opted out of the COVAX partnership. Now, as they both enjoy huge contracts with the U.S. and Europe, they can safely monopolize vaccine distribution in the wealthiest nations on Earth. Yet for as much as they are celebrated in the stock exchanges of the West, the majority of the world will have to wait for other heroes. COVAX hopes to be the world’s saving grace, though it still lacks funding to buy enough doses for everyone.
When Jonas Salk refused a patent for the poliomyelitis vaccine, he recognized that he was not the hero of his story. Millions of Americans, through the March for Dimes foundation, had contributed enough pocket change and lunch money to pay for the research and development of the polio vaccine, a staggering 80 million dollars raised through grassroots fundraising. The American people could take pride in a vaccine that they made. This was not some company’s handiwork; it was, quite literally, and very powerfully, the product of every American: every tear shed for a loved one’s loss, every sweat broken in the fight to save a life, all of that was poured into the vaccine. And to do ourselves justice, it became our vaccine. COVID-19 should be no different. This vaccine is not Moderna’s. This is not Pfizer’s. This is the people’s vaccine. And it should stay that way.