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How Many People Will Patent Monopolies Kill This Pandemic?

No one wants to die, but hey, who wouldn’t be willing to sacrifice their life to protect someone’s patent monopoly? That is a question that is implicitly raised in this New York Times piece on the race to develop an effective vaccine against the coronavirus. Near the beginning the piece tells readers:

“In an era of intense nationalism, the geopolitics of the vaccine race are growing as complex as the medicine. The months of mutual vilification between the United States and China over the origins of the virus have poisoned most efforts at cooperation between them. The U.S. government is already warning that American innovations must be protected from theft — chiefly from Beijing.”

Okay, what does “theft” by China, or anyone else, mean in this context? Would China be preventing U.S. scientists from moving ahead with the development of a vaccine? Would it be preventing drug companies from manufacturing and distributing the vaccine?

Of course, neither of these possibilities makes any sense. Nothing China might do with knowledge gained from U.S. researchers would obstruct our own development of a vaccine. The only “risk” here is that China might jump ahead and be able to vaccinate its own people, and possibly people in other countries (including the U.S.) before a U.S. produced vaccine is available. This could be an embarrassment to Donald Trump and may also reduce the potential profits of U.S. drug companies, but it could mean that hundreds of thousands of lives are saved.

Apparently the New York Times didn’t think it was worth mentioning that the Trump administration’s policies might lead to massive loss of life to protect his ego and industry profits, but that is the unavoidable implication of the information in the article.

This first appeared on Dean Baker’s Beat the Press blog.

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Dean Baker is the senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC. 

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