The lethal dishonesty of ‘intellectual property’ in a pandemic

See updates through April 4, 2021, at end of post.


When I saw the headline for a Washington Post story, I knew what the argument would be. Because it really isn’t a new argument.

In essence, capitalists insist that innovation requires incentive. Incentive means profit. Profit means intellectual property rights.

And, according to capitalists, those intellectual property rights must be upheld even when an international shortage of vaccines will allow the novel coronavirus to develop new variants that may evade the vaccines they have developed. The technology the pharmaceutical companies have developed for COVID-19 vaccines will be used in future vaccines and drugs. This technology is difficult to replicate, manufacturing capacity has had to be expanded dramatically, and it can’t all be done overnight.[1]

The opposition points out that people are dying for lack of the vaccines and that, as variants are born, the vaccines (I receive my second shot of the Pfizer vaccine this coming Friday) themselves become useless. And more people will die. Some of those variants may be more lethal, meaning even more people will die.[2]

Both arguments rely on a counterfactual. The questions here really are, first, would it have been possible to develop these vaccines so rapidly in another system besides capitalism? I have to think the answer here is yes. Because I really don’t see greed as a functional motivation for research.

In human science, we prefer the term ‘inquiry’ to the term ‘research.’ Inquiry is about questions. It is about curiosity. It is about the pursuit of answers rather than the answers themselves.

Greed, on the other hand, is about something far baser. It’s about lining one’s pockets. When it happens in research, it leads to various forms of intellectual fraud, like doctored results, like plagiarism. It retards progress rather than furthers it. And indeed, as I hear from passengers in my car, it leads to haste, a haste many distrust.[3]

Second, would it be possible to scale up manufacturing capacity in another system besides capitalism? This is harder, because as we know, greed is a powerful incentive, but I just don’t see how, intrinsically, it could not be done.

The Washington Post story points to a company in Bangladesh, Incepta, that is being ignored in its requests to license the technology to produce the vaccines, implying that the intellectual property holders are not doing all they can to ramp up production. The intellectual property holders insist that they have to be able to trust those they license the technology to,[4] implying that they do not trust Incepta.

We don’t know, at least from this story,[5] why the intellectual property holders distrust Incepta. Though the article repeatedly points to what may be a bias in favor of North America, Europe, and India.[6] Again, this is unexplained.

What we do know is that people are dying for want of the vaccine and that more will die if they don’t get it.

What we also know is that intellectual property is really a rather dubious concept. It relies on a notion of a “lone genius.” But that “lone genius” isn’t really alone. S/he lives in a social context that often leads others to develop the same ideas. Multiple people may develop an idea, but the winner, the one who gets the patents, the one who gets the copyrights, is really an arbitrary choice.[7] That multiple pharmaceutical companies have developed COVID-19 vaccines suggests that something similar has happened here. Which in turn suggests that the intellectual property argument for limiting who can produce badly needed vaccines is dishonest.

That dishonesty is killing people.


Update, March 30, 2021, revised, April 3 and 4, 2021: Because the COVID-19 vaccine rollout has been so uneven around the globe, in part due to drug manufacturers’ insistence on preserving their intellectual property ‘rights,’[8] new, deadlier, and more contagious variants of the novel coronavirus[9] will require new vaccines within a year.[10] This is apparently without even considering vaccine hesitancy in countries that have access to the vaccine.[11]


Update, April 3 and 4, 2021: Footnotes have been enhanced relating to vaccine hesitancy and the problem of COVID-19 variants, both in the original text of this post, and in the update of March 30, 2021.

  1. [1]Christopher Rowland, Emily Rauhala, and Miriam Berger, “Drug companies defend vaccine monopolies in face of global outcry,” Washington Post, March 20, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2021/03/20/covid-vaccine-global-shortages/
  2. [2]Josie Ensor, “New coronavirus mutation could be evolving to get around mask-wearing and hand-washing,” Telegraph, September 24, 2020, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/09/24/new-coronavirus-mutation-could-evolving-get-around-mask-wearing/; Natalie Grover, “What do we know about the fast-spreading Covid variant in UK?” Guardian, December 20, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/dec/20/fast-spreading-covid-variant-in-england-uk; Melissa Healy, “California’s coronavirus strain looks increasingly dangerous: ‘The devil is already here,’” Los Angeles Times, February 23, 2021, https://www.latimes.com/science/story/2021-02-23/california-homegrown-coronavirus-strain-looks-increasingly-transmissible-and-dangerous; Sarah Kaplan and Joel Achenbach, “Researchers hypothesize that a highly contagious strain of the coronavirus is spreading, but other experts remain skeptical,” Washington Post, May 5, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/researchers-hypothesize-that-a-highly-contagious-strain-of-the-coronavirus-is-spreading-but-other-experts-remain-skeptical/2020/05/05/db90d790-8ee7-11ea-9e23-6914ee410a5f_story.html; Sarah Kaplan and Joel Achenbach, “This coronavirus mutation has taken over the world. Scientists are trying to understand why,” Washington Post, June 29, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/science/2020/06/29/coronavirus-mutation-science/; Christopher Rowland, Emily Rauhala, and Miriam Berger, “Drug companies defend vaccine monopolies in face of global outcry,” Washington Post, March 20, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2021/03/20/covid-vaccine-global-shortages/; Zeynep Tufekci, “The Fourth Surge Is Upon Us. This Time, It’s Different,” Atlantic, March 30, 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2021/03/fourth-surge-variant-vaccine/618463/; Ralph Vartabedian, “Scientists have identified a new strain of the coronavirus that appears to be more contagious,” Los Angeles Times, May 5, 2020, https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-05-05/mutant-coronavirus-has-emerged-more-contagious-than-original
  3. [3]Benjamin Wallace-Wells, “The Vaccine Resisters,” New Yorker, March 5, 2021, https://www.newyorker.com/news/annals-of-populism/the-vaccine-resisters
  4. [4]Christopher Rowland, Emily Rauhala, and Miriam Berger, “Drug companies defend vaccine monopolies in face of global outcry,” Washington Post, March 20, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2021/03/20/covid-vaccine-global-shortages/
  5. [5]Christopher Rowland, Emily Rauhala, and Miriam Berger, “Drug companies defend vaccine monopolies in face of global outcry,” Washington Post, March 20, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2021/03/20/covid-vaccine-global-shortages/
  6. [6]Christopher Rowland, Emily Rauhala, and Miriam Berger, “Drug companies defend vaccine monopolies in face of global outcry,” Washington Post, March 20, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2021/03/20/covid-vaccine-global-shortages/
  7. [7]Alfonso Montuori and Ronald E. Purser, eds. Social Creativity, vol 1 (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton, 1999).
  8. [8]Christopher Rowland, Emily Rauhala, and Miriam Berger, “Drug companies defend vaccine monopolies in face of global outcry,” Washington Post, March 20, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2021/03/20/covid-vaccine-global-shortages/
  9. [9]Josie Ensor, “New coronavirus mutation could be evolving to get around mask-wearing and hand-washing,” Telegraph, September 24, 2020, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/09/24/new-coronavirus-mutation-could-evolving-get-around-mask-wearing/; Natalie Grover, “What do we know about the fast-spreading Covid variant in UK?” Guardian, December 20, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/dec/20/fast-spreading-covid-variant-in-england-uk; Melissa Healy, “California’s coronavirus strain looks increasingly dangerous: ‘The devil is already here,’” Los Angeles Times, February 23, 2021, https://www.latimes.com/science/story/2021-02-23/california-homegrown-coronavirus-strain-looks-increasingly-transmissible-and-dangerous; Sarah Kaplan and Joel Achenbach, “Researchers hypothesize that a highly contagious strain of the coronavirus is spreading, but other experts remain skeptical,” Washington Post, May 5, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/researchers-hypothesize-that-a-highly-contagious-strain-of-the-coronavirus-is-spreading-but-other-experts-remain-skeptical/2020/05/05/db90d790-8ee7-11ea-9e23-6914ee410a5f_story.html; Sarah Kaplan and Joel Achenbach, “This coronavirus mutation has taken over the world. Scientists are trying to understand why,” Washington Post, June 29, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/science/2020/06/29/coronavirus-mutation-science/; Christopher Rowland, Emily Rauhala, and Miriam Berger, “Drug companies defend vaccine monopolies in face of global outcry,” Washington Post, March 20, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2021/03/20/covid-vaccine-global-shortages/; Zeynep Tufekci, “The Fourth Surge Is Upon Us. This Time, It’s Different,” Atlantic, March 30, 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2021/03/fourth-surge-variant-vaccine/618463/; Ralph Vartabedian, “Scientists have identified a new strain of the coronavirus that appears to be more contagious,” Los Angeles Times, May 5, 2020, https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-05-05/mutant-coronavirus-has-emerged-more-contagious-than-original
  10. [10]Natalie Grover, “New Covid vaccines needed globally within a year, say scientists,” Guardian, March 29, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/mar/30/new-covid-vaccines-needed-within-year-say-scientists
  11. [11]Philip Bump, “Vaccine skepticism and disregard for containment efforts go hand in hand,” Washington Post, April 2, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/04/02/vaccine-skepticism-disregard-containment-efforts-go-hand-in-hand/; April Dembosky, “It’s not Tuskegee. Current medical racism fuels Black Americans’ vaccine hesitancy,” Los Angeles Times, March 25, 2021, https://www.latimes.com/science/story/2021-03-25/current-medical-racism-not-tuskegee-expls-vaccine-hesitancy-among-black-americans; Elizabeth Dwoskin, “Facebook steps up campaign to ban false information about coronavirus vaccines,” Washington Post, December 3, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/12/03/facebook-covid-vaccine/; Benjamin Wallace-Wells, “The Vaccine Resisters,” New Yorker, March 5, 2021, https://www.newyorker.com/news/annals-of-populism/the-vaccine-resisters; Hannah Wiley, “‘No masks. No vaccines.’ Battle is brewing over coronavirus immunizations in California,” Sacramento Bee, June 26, 2020, https://www.sacbee.com/news/politics-government/capitol-alert/article243381501.html

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