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OPINION

Amidst New Outbreak, WTO Shouldn't Monkey with TRIPS

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AP Photo/Matt Rourke

For almost two years, the World Trade Organization (WTO) has been kicking around a proposal to stop enforcing -- that is, to allow the stealing of -- all Covid-19 vaccine patents. 

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The folly of this proposal has been apparent since it was first put forward. Now, however, it's under consideration for adoption at a WTO ministerial conference in Geneva next week. Trade officials should stop their mindless posturing and reject it before it does even more harm.

At every point in the fight against the coronavirus, strong intellectual property (IP) protections have been thoroughly vindicated. Now, it appears Mother Nature herself is making the same argument -- through an international outbreak of monkeypox.

Before a few weeks ago, most Americans had probably never heard of monkeypox. Yet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now tracking its spread from central Africa to Canada, Europe, and the United States.

Luckily, vaccines are already available. Except luck had nothing to do with it.

We have monkeypox vaccines because laboratories and drug companies invested billions of dollars researching and developing them. It's not an accident that the smallpox vaccines now being enlisted to fight off monkeypox were developed in nations with strong IP protections., Only in countries providing such protections do such massive investments in medical innovation have a chance to pay off.

The effective monkeypox vaccines Jynneos and ACAM2000 are a product of the same IP ecosystem that just saved millions of lives and trillions of dollars with its record-breaking development and distribution of billions of doses of patented Covid-19 vaccines.

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Previously, the fastest-developed vaccine in history -- for the mumps in the 1960s -- took about four years of research. In 2020, two U.S. drug makers began testing their coronavirus vaccine molecules within weeks of publication of the virus's genome. Both were green-lighted by the FDA by the end of 2020. While the WTO spent two years theorizing about whether drug companies would hoard the vaccines, those companies were busy making 11 billion doses and delivering them around the world so quickly and in such volume as to produce a current global glut. Indeed, global manufacturers have had to slow production, and even the poorest countries have asked the world to "stagger" the donation of additional doses.

The medical research community -- born, financed, and driven by national and global IP protection -- has been so effective that today trade barriers on vaccine ingredients represent a larger obstacle to global vaccinations than anything having to do with IP.

And yet the WTO, the international organization whose mission it is to lower trade barriers, is wasting its energy blathering endlessly over a plan to destroy the legal framework that makes risky, expensive investments in scientific inquiry worthwhile in the first place. That's the global codification of IP protection in the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (or "TRIPS") agreement.

The closer one looks, the more the WTO proposal to waive TRIPS for Covid vaccines looks like farce. Over the past two years, researchers, drug companies, and the actual decisions of national governments have comprehensively rebutted every speculation and fear of hoarding underlying it.

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And now, as if dotting an exclamation point, the same industry -- the same community of scientists, engineers, investors, and businesses -- are doing it again in the fight against monkeypox.

Countries like the United States don't protect intellectual property because they are hoarding their wealth; we became wealthy in large part because we protect intellectual property. As Abraham Lincoln put it, our laws "add the fuel of interest to the fire of genius."

That's why the TRIPS agreement was negotiated and signed in the first place -- to set global standards that allow the rest of the world to enjoy the benefits of the IP economy. The WTO should be celebrating the agreement's success in saving lives rather than scheming to tear it up.

Peter J. Pitts, a former FDA Associate Commissioner and member of the United States Senior Executive Service, is President of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest and a Visiting Professor at the University of Paris School of Medicine.

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