Earlier this month, members of the World Trade Organization met to debate a proposal to waive intellectual property protections on COVID-19 vaccines.
Supporters of the plan claim it's necessary to boost the supply of vaccines in developing countries and, in turn, vaccinate the world.
But insufficient supply isn't holding up the global vaccination campaign. In fact, many developing countries have a surplus of vaccines. Consider South Africa, which is preparing to destroy its stockpile of expiring doses and terminate its mass vaccination program.
Or take the Serum Institute of India, which shut down production of COVID-19 vaccines in December after its warehouses filled with 200 million unused doses.
Developing countries are running into problems on the demand side of the equation. The World Health Organization's Africa director recently said there was "no doubt that vaccine hesitancy is a factor in the rollout of vaccines" in African countries.
Even where there is demand for shots, officials are facing logistical barriers: shortages of workers, limited refrigerator space to store vaccines, and a lack of transportation to distribute shots.
Waiving intellectual property protections won't solve those problems. But it would set a dangerous precedent that could prevent future medical innovations such as the COVID-19 vaccines, which were developed within months and authorized for emergency use by the Food and Drug Administration in late 2020, from ever being created.
Manufacturers spend 15 years and roughly $3 billion, on average, developing a drug. Robust intellectual property protections provide them assurance that they'll be able to recoup those expenses should their drug prove effective and make it to market.
If governments can eliminate those protections at any moment, investors will think twice before funding drug research. Future patients will be the ones who suffer.
WTO members are set to consider the IP waiver in June. When they do, they'd be wise to think of those future patients.
Sally C. Pipes (@sallypipes) is president, CEO, and Thomas W. Smith fellow in healthcare policy at the Pacific Research Institute. Her latest book is False Premise, False Promise: The Disastrous Reality of Medicare for All (Encounter 2020).