The lethal dishonesty of ‘intellectual property’ in a pandemic

See updates through May 5, 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.


Update, April 24, 2021: It seems that intellectual property[12] is not the only problem the developing world has in manufacturing vaccines.

“The point the Secretary (of State Antony Blinken) has made repeatedly is that as long as the virus is spreading anywhere, it is a threat to people everywhere. So as long as the virus is spreading uncontrolled in this country, it can mutate and it can travel beyond our borders. That, in turn, poses a threat well beyond the United States,” [State Department spokesperson Ned] Price said in responses to questions.[13]

So what is the U.S. doing? Restricting raw materials India, which is suffering a dramatic and likely woefully understated increase in COVID-19 cases,[14] needs to manufacture vaccines. The U.S. is maintaining Donald Trump’s “Amerikkka first” stance, claiming its first obligation is to vaccinate its own people.[15]


Update, April 30, 2021, revised, May 1, 2021: The Biden administration has partly reversed[16] its earlier idiocy, in which it refused to allow exports of raw materials for vaccines to India.[17] The country faces utter calamity with a COVID-19 surge, and India’s government, which has diminished the severity of the problem, bears considerable blame.[18] The U.S. now promises both vaccines and the raw materials to manufacture those vaccines.[19]


Update, May 3, 2021: It looks like, even as some semblance of normalcy returns, COVID-19 will be with us for a very, very long time.[20] A short version is that as people refuse the vaccine or are difficult to reach to be vaccinated, COVID-19 variants have the opportunity to arise. Some may be more lethal. Some may be more contagious. Some may “break through” vaccines.[21]

The picture is complicated. A lot of people, including myself, may never know if we have been infected with COVID-19,[22] even if they—I have never been tested—were tested (at least when the tests were new).[23] To the extent we were infected and subsequently vaccinated, we may be more broadly immune to variants.[24] That, in turn, could eventually limit the ability of variants to spread.[25]

I had less severe side-effects with the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine, suggesting a possibility that I might previously have been infected,[26] but there is a huge confounding variable in that, anticipating more severe side effects following the second dose,[27] I went home that afternoon instead of going right back to work as I had with the first dose. So the bottom line remains the same: I don’t know. And probably a lot of people in my risk categories won’t either.

“It’s really just kind of a reflection of how unique each of our systems are, what other immunities we have,” Dr. Mark Loafman, chair of family and community medicine for Cook County Health in Illinois, told NBC 5. “Each of our immune systems is a mosaic composite of all that we’ve been through and all that we have and all we’ve recently been dealing with.”

“Our individual response varies,” Loafman said, but everybody experiences an “appropriate immune response” for their own body.[28]

It’d all be simpler if we could look forward to a day when COVID-19 was going away. But with so many people refusing to be vaccinated and with significant segments of the population that are difficult to reach, even when they are willing to be vaccinated, that’s looking less and less likely.[29]


Update, May 5, 2021: It seems there are also problems with manufacturing capability—mRNA vaccines require special technology to produce—and a potential competition for ingredients,[30] but

The Biden administration on Wednesday threw its support behind a controversial proposal to waive intellectual property protections for coronavirus vaccines, with liberals framing it as a necessary bid to speed the shots to billions in the developing world, while the drug industry warned of devastating effects to vaccine production.

U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai said the United States will now move forward with international discussions to waive the protections for the duration of the pandemic. U.S. officials helped block a World Trade Organization proposal that was introduced last year to stop enforcing patents for coronavirus-related medical products. Dozens of developing countries have pushed for the proposal, arguing that it would allow them to rapidly produce their own generic vaccines, rather than wait months or years for sufficient doses.[31]

The final agreement may also look rather different from what’s presently proposed.[32]

  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
  12. [12]David Benfell, “The lethal dishonesty of ‘intellectual property’ in a pandemic,” Not Housebroken, April 4, 2021, https://disunitedstates.org/2021/03/21/the-lethal-dishonesty-of-intellectual-property-in-a-pandemic/
  13. [13]Hindu, “U.S. defends restrictions on export of COVID-19 vaccine raw materials amid India’s request to lift ban,” April 23, 2021, https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/us-defends-restrictions-on-export-of-covid-19-vaccine-raw-materials-amid-indias-request-to-lift-ban/article34391251.ece
  14. [14]Shaikh Azizur Rahman and Emma Graham-Harrison, “India’s Covid death toll at record high, but true figure likely to be worse,” Guardian, April 24, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/apr/24/indias-covid-death-toll-hides-stark-truth-for-the-poor-its-even-worse; Joanna Slater, “India’s devastating outbreak is driving the global coronavirus surge,” Washington Post, April 19, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/interactive/2021/india-covid-cases-surge/
  15. [15]Hindu, “U.S. defends restrictions on export of COVID-19 vaccine raw materials amid India’s request to lift ban,” April 23, 2021, https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/us-defends-restrictions-on-export-of-covid-19-vaccine-raw-materials-amid-indias-request-to-lift-ban/article34391251.ece
  16. [16]Thomas Wright, “Biden’s Misstep in India,” Atlantic, April 28, 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/04/bidens-misstep-in-india/618722/
  17. [17]Hindu, “U.S. defends restrictions on export of COVID-19 vaccine raw materials amid India’s request to lift ban,” April 23, 2021, https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/us-defends-restrictions-on-export-of-covid-19-vaccine-raw-materials-amid-indias-request-to-lift-ban/article34391251.ece
  18. [18]Rana Ayyub, “‘This Is Hell.’ Prime Minister Modi’s Failure to Lead Is Deepening India’s COVID-19 Crisis,” Time, April 23, 2021, https://time.com/5957118/india-covid-19-modi/; Ananya Bhattacharya and Amanda Shendruk, “India’s incomplete Covid-19 data doesn’t begin to capture the crisis in Delhi,” Quartz, April 28, 2021, https://qz.com/india/2002082/the-dire-covid-19-hospital-bed-crisis-in-indias-capital-delhi/; Nathan Jeffay, “The only real herd immunity is global: Why India’s COVID crisis threatens us all,” Times of Israel, April 29, 2021, https://www.timesofisrael.com/why-indias-covid-rampage-should-worry-israel-and-all-aiming-for-herd-immunity/; Shaikh Azizur Rahman and Emma Graham-Harrison, “India’s Covid death toll at record high, but true figure likely to be worse,” Guardian, April 24, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/apr/24/indias-covid-death-toll-hides-stark-truth-for-the-poor-its-even-worse; Joanna Slater, “India’s devastating outbreak is driving the global coronavirus surge,” Washington Post, April 19, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/interactive/2021/india-covid-cases-surge/
  19. [19]Thomas Wright, “Biden’s Misstep in India,” Atlantic, April 28, 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/04/bidens-misstep-in-india/618722/
  20. [20]Apoorva Mandavilli, “Reaching ‘Herd Immunity’ Is Unlikely in the U.S., Experts Now Believe,” New York Times, May 3, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/03/health/covid-herd-immunity-vaccine.html
  21. [21]Sally Robertson, “Previously infected vaccinees broadly neutralize SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern,” News-Medical, May 2, 2021, https://www.news-medical.net/news/20210502/Previously-infected-vaccinees-broadly-neutralize-SARS-CoV-2-variants-of-concern.aspx
  22. [22]Holly Yan, “5 common arguments for reopening the economy — and why experts say they are flawed,” CNN, May 11, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/05/11/us/reopening-the-economy-flawed-arguments-trnd/index.html
  23. [23]Steve Eder, Megan Twohey, and Apoorva Mandavilli, “Antibody Test, Seen as Key to Reopening Country, Does Not Yet Deliver,” New York Times, April 19, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/19/us/coronavirus-antibody-tests.html; Christopher Weaver, “Questions About Accuracy of Coronavirus Tests Sow Worry,” Wall Street Journal, April 2, 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/questions-about-accuracy-of-coronavirus-tests-sow-worry-11585836001
  24. [24]Sally Robertson, “Previously infected vaccinees broadly neutralize SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern,” News-Medical, May 2, 2021, https://www.news-medical.net/news/20210502/Previously-infected-vaccinees-broadly-neutralize-SARS-CoV-2-variants-of-concern.aspx
  25. [25]Apoorva Mandavilli, “Reaching ‘Herd Immunity’ Is Unlikely in the U.S., Experts Now Believe,” New York Times, May 3, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/03/health/covid-herd-immunity-vaccine.html
  26. [26]Katie Camero, “If you’ve had COVID, your first vaccine dose may cause worse side effects. Here’s why,” Miami Herald, April 20, 2021, https://www.miamiherald.com/news/coronavirus/article250667914.html
  27. [27]David Benfell, “Medical apartheid and COVID-19 vaccinations,” Not Housebroken, April 4, 2021, https://disunitedstates.org/2021/03/26/medical-apartheid-and-covid-19-vaccinations/
  28. [28]Katie Camero, “If you’ve had COVID, your first vaccine dose may cause worse side effects. Here’s why,” Miami Herald, April 20, 2021, https://www.miamiherald.com/news/coronavirus/article250667914.html
  29. [29]Apoorva Mandavilli, “Reaching ‘Herd Immunity’ Is Unlikely in the U.S., Experts Now Believe,” New York Times, May 3, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/03/health/covid-herd-immunity-vaccine.html
  30. [30]Dan Diamond, Tyler Pager, and Jeff Stein, “Biden commits to waiving vaccine patents, driving wedge with pharmaceutical companies,” Washington Post, May 5, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2021/05/05/biden-waives-vaccine-patents/
  31. [31]Dan Diamond, Tyler Pager, and Jeff Stein, “Biden commits to waiving vaccine patents, driving wedge with pharmaceutical companies,” Washington Post, May 5, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2021/05/05/biden-waives-vaccine-patents/
  32. [32]Dan Diamond, Tyler Pager, and Jeff Stein, “Biden commits to waiving vaccine patents, driving wedge with pharmaceutical companies,” Washington Post, May 5, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2021/05/05/biden-waives-vaccine-patents/

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