When I was in Congress, politicians on both sides were eager to offer “bumper sticker solutions” to the problems of the day. Then, as now, the easiest solutions — those that can be slapped on a bumper sticker — are rarely the best choices for the nation in the long term.
Of necessity, the Biden administration has been working to repair the reputation of the United States around the world. It’s working. A recent global survey by the Pew Research Center shows a near doubling from Trump to Biden in those expressing confidence the U.S. president will do the right thing.
We should take care, however, not to overextend as we strive to regain the trust and support of our allies. Our long-term interests have to take precedence over expedient solutions, no matter how much short-term goodwill they buy.
In the long run, good policy makes for good politics.
Take, for instance, the decision by World Trade Organization (WTO) members, including the United States, to eliminate intellectual property (IP) rules on Covid-19 vaccines and the current consideration of expanding that WTO decision to treatments and tests for Covid-19. Yes, the United States could avoid criticism from abroad by agreeing. But the decision on vaccines was short-sighted, and its extension to therapeutics and diagnostics would be even worse.
By going along with these waivers, the U.S. government is effectively handing over to foreign competitors carefully guarded IP developed by American scientists. This will hurt our own industry and workers and alienate our economic allies, who also rely on IP protection to spur innovation.
In developing vaccines and treatments for the Covid-19 virus, American researchers and their partners literally saved the world, as well as the world economy. With unprecedented speed, new technology stemmed the tide of death and illness brought on by the virus and enabled world economies to re-energize in the aftermath. Without the promise of strong IP protection, none of these inventions would have occurred.
The technology and the treatments that followed demonstrated the apex of American scientific innovation and collaboration. These innovations and resources hold great promise for future discoveries in the battle against Alzheimer’s, HIV, cancer, and other diseases.
But not if we give them away. Countries like South Africa, India, and China have long sought cheap ways to compete unfairly with American life sciences innovation. There are documented cases of medicines produced in these countries containing dangerous cross-contamination and even cases in which the active ingredients are missing.
Strong U.S. regulatory requirements guarantee quality, whereas, in many other countries, chain of custody and care in handling critical ingredients are often in question. Giving away valuable IP weakens America — and gives a leg up to competitors, including those willing to cut corners on safety and security.
Even worse is that there’s no evidence waiving the IP for Covid-19 vaccines and treatments will help patients in disadvantaged countries obtain medicines any quicker. The healthcare delivery systems and medical treatment infrastructure in these countries remain woefully inadequate.
America’s life-science companies have made great strides in assisting developing countries with the care and delivery of medicines. While there is much more to be done, it’s abundantly clear by now that the supply of these products is not the challenge.
The expedient political benefit from waiving IP rights does not yield the best and most effective policy for patients around the world. American workers, from the lab bench to manufacturing construction sites, can fully provide the discoveries and cures needed to supply the world. They can do so while maintaining a strong U.S. industrial base that provides good jobs, benefits, and security to American workers.
In the end, a safe supply of medicines developed here in the United States to treat the scourge of disease remains the best long-term solution to current and future pandemics. Countries around the globe will benefit from the best scientists working in the best labs built and maintained by the best workers in the world.
When it comes to IP and world politics, the best long-term policy will make for the best possible politics.
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