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Property Rights Key for COVID Cures

It should be hard to miss, but America’s biomedical innovators and industry — that is, private companies putting their own or investors’ or both’s private resources at risk — are running in overdrive working on solutions to every type of need associated with COVID-19. Industry response to this pandemic has been broad and deep and sustained. For instance:

  • Abbott Laboratories has just launched a new diagnostic test for use in convenient settings like doctors’ offices instead of sending samples to clinical labs. Abbott’s new test yields coronavirus results in 5 to 13 minutes. More than 200 diagnostic tests are in development.

  • Johnson & Johnson is fast-tracking a COVID-19 vaccine that’s now expected to be widely available early in 2021. Sanofi and Moderna are each developing vaccines involving the virus’s genetic matter.

  • Ford Motor and GE are retooling factories to mass-produce medical ventilators, as are GM and Ventec at idled auto plant facilities.

  • Gilead has human trials underway, testing its antiviral drug remdesivir on COVID-19 patients while ramping up manufacture based on promising early results in animals.

  • Medical device firm Medtronic is making widely available the design specifications and software code for a ventilator model.

These pharmaceutical, biotech, medical device and other companies are able to respond so quickly and fully for several reasons, each related to property rights. One, they function on a research-and-development business model. Two, their high-risk, high-reward R&D business rests on the foundation of secure, exclusive, enforceable private property rights. Three, they depend on financial returns on their investments to replenish R&D budgets, repay investors, ensure manufacturing facilities remain up to snuff and pay their top-notch scientists, researchers and engineers. Four, they rely on free enterprise for competitive success.

Now is the absolute wrong time to threaten the private property rights of COVID-19 fighters. There’s no good time to assault private property rights. In the midst of a worldwide public health crisis is as bad a time as is conceivable. Bayh-Dole 40 Executive Director Joe Allen warns, “there are those who want to use this crisis to return to the failed policies of the past.”

But that isn’t stopping those who loathe the private property rights and free market that make all-innovator-hands-on-deck rapid response possible. Doctors Without Borders is pressing for socialistic government policies, such as price controls and compulsory licensing, and demanding that innovators foreswear patents on coronavirus-related discoveries. A group from the Ivory Tower is hawking a corporate pledge not to seek or exert intellectual property protection on any COVID-19 solutions.

Such misguided efforts are very foolish. As ITIF’s Stephen Ezell notes, “In particular, [intentional U.S. incentives for funding R&D, enabling] commercialization of university research, and a drug pricing system that allows companies to earn profits they can reinvest to finance future generations of biomedical innovation [matter] given that the risky, expensive and uncertain process of developing a drug results in only one in several thousand molecular compounds ever making it from the research phase to market, while the cost for those drugs that do become commercialized approaches $2.9 billion.”

Property rights conservatives strongly reiterate that patents and IP are vital to discovery and development, especially in high-risk sectors such as medicine. Government price controls, compulsory licensing and other forms of expropriation of private property destroy prospects for innovation and for achieving future breakthroughs.

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