A movement is underway to pressure the Biden Administration to waive global intellectual property (IP) rights to COVID vaccines developed in the United States. Such a waiver, the argument goes, would allow facilities around the world to begin making vaccines and saving lives.
According to one commentator on the issue, “The only argument against lifting these IP restrictions is that doing so would decrease the power and eventual bottom line of Big Pharma, the most hated industry in the country.” Biden, the commentators argue, should place human lives over the property rights of the companies that developed the vaccine.
There are two reasons to oppose waiving the property rights of drug companies. One reason is practical and one reason is moral.
Drug companies invest billions of dollars into research and development. And after they develop a new drug, they must endure years of government-mandated trials before they are given permission to sell their product. This is an expensive and risky undertaking—years of effort and billions of dollars could be wasted if government bureaucrats don’t approve the drug. So, when a drug is approved, the company must recover its investment in that drug, as well as the drugs that were not approved. However, if their property rights are simply dismissed and they cannot recover their investments, they will have neither the means nor the incentive to develop new drugs.
Morally, waiving Big Pharma’s property rights is a gross injustice. These companies developed vaccines in record time and their efforts will save countless lives. They do not deserve to be punished for their heroic efforts. They deserve to be celebrated and admired. They developed life-saving drugs and their moral right to benefit from that action must be respected and defended. To claim otherwise is to say that those who save our lives should not be honored. If we want to save human lives, then we must defend and protect property rights. If we want to save human lives, then we must take a moral stand because the moral is the practical.
If you want to see the impractical consequences of dismissing property rights, look at Venezuela. In the 1980s, Venezuela was the richest country in Latin America. In 1999 Hugo Chavez was elected President of Venezuela and began removing property rights. During his tenure, Chavez seized much of the nation’s farmland, nationalized some of the largest companies in Venezuela, and confiscated the last privately-operated oil field in the country. In less than twenty years, Chavez destroyed the Venezuelan economy, and shortages of such basic supplies as toilet paper, flour, and milk were common. In less than twenty years, Chavez transformed Venezuela from the richest nation in Latin America to one of the poorest countries in the world. And he did it by dismissing property rights.
If the Biden Administration waives Big Pharma’s property rights, some lives will undoubtedly be saved in the short term. But saving lives in the short-term will lead to long-term suffering and misery around the world and in America. In establishing the premise that property rights can be casually dismissed, we will be taking a long step down a very dangerous road. And the end of that road is Venezuela.