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OPINION

Will Biden Let China Steal Our Technology?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.
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AP Photo /Eraldo Peres

Several congressional Democrats have urged the Biden administration to make it easier for China, Russia, and other hostile nations to essentially steal America's cutting-edge technology.

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They didn't frame it that way, of course. But that's the inevitable result of their request -- and just one of many reasons why the Biden administration ought to ignore them.

In early October, Democrats Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, Lloyd Doggett of Texas, and Jan Schakowsky of Illinois wrote President Biden, urging him to support "a comprehensive TRIPS waiver covering vaccines, diagnostics, and therapeutics." 

They're referring to an ongoing effort at the World Trade Organization, where India and South Africa have petitioned other countries to waive intellectual property protections on Covid-19 treatments and tests -- protections guaranteed by a 1995 trade agreement known as TRIPS. The WTO, with the support of the Biden administration, already nullified those protections for Covid-19 vaccines back in June. 

Now, India and South Africa are back at the trough, demanding that Western governments turn over their companies' antiviral and diagnostic technology too -- in the name of "equity," of course. And leftist American lawmakers are only too happy to back those demands. 

Blumenauer and his colleagues claim that a TRIPS waiver extension will support our allies, including South Africa and India, by better enabling them to fight Covid at home. Without the extended waiver, they say, Covid testing and therapies will be less readily available to patients in low-income countries and the global response to the pandemic will suffer. 

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This argument is ridiculous on multiple levels. 

First, the notion that India and South Africa are "allies" is laughable. Both are members of the BRICS bloc, an alliance formed in 2009. In case Blumenauer and company have forgotten, the "R" in BRICS stands for Russia, and the "C" stands for China. That means the B, I, and S of BRICS are Russia's and China's accomplices against America's best interests.

At this very moment, India is helping Vladimir Putin's regime mitigate the impact of sanctions by purchasing huge quantities of Russian oil and coal. South Africa has similarly maintained warm ties with Putin while pointedly rejecting U.S. efforts to isolate and punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. Do Biden and left-wing Democrats really think aiding and abetting our adversaries through a WTO shakedown is wise?

Second, it's patently false to suggest that IP protections have blocked developing countries from obtaining vaccines, antivirals, and tests.

Pharmaceutical companies previously inked more than 300 partnerships with manufacturers worldwide to produce Covid vaccines. Those manufacturing partnerships proved so productive, they led to a global glut of vaccines that has persisted for nearly a year, with millions of doses expiring unused. 

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Vaccine uptake has lagged in some countries due to logistical difficulties and low demand -- not low supply. A dose cannot be administered without the correct equipment, location, and trained personnel. Nor can a dose be administered without a willing patient. 

Clearly, the best way to increase vaccination rates in low-income countries is through improved logistics and more effective public-health education and vaccination campaigns -- not expropriating U.S. medical inventions.

Just as the earlier TRIPS waiver didn't address these very real barriers to higher vaccination rates, the expanded waiver would do virtually nothing to improve patients' access to medicines and tests in the developing world. 

All it would do is offer India and South Africa -- which just so happen to have enormous generic drug industries -- highly lucrative Western technology without any of the obligations that come from voluntary licensing agreements. Russia and China would both gain access to that valuable technology too, if the terms of the June waiver are any guide. 

The lifesaving vaccines and treatments developed by U.S. companies represented the culmination of decades of research and billions of dollars in private investment. Such investment would not have happened without the protections afforded by U.S. and international IP law.

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There's a reason why our allies in the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and the European Union oppose expanding the TRIPS waiver. The original waiver didn't help the developing world, and an extended waiver wouldn't either. Any further backtracking on international IP protections would merely enrich our rivals, chill innovation, and jeopardize our collective future health.

James Edwards, Ph.D., is executive director of Conservatives for Property Rights (@4PropertyRights) and patent policy advisor to Eagle Forum Education and Legal Defense Fund. The views expressed are his own. 

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