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Patent pools, vaccines and coronavirus cures

Summary:
Given age, general grumpiness and our correct if rare worldview we rarely see newspaper articles - those not written by ourselves that is - that we entirely agree with. An exception is Matthew Lynn on patent pools for vaccines and treatments for the coronavirus: One iron law of politics and economics is always this: there is no crisis quite so bad that the European Union cannot find a way to make it a little bit worse. This week, the EU is leading efforts to create a so-called “voluntary patent pool” that would suspend intellectual property rules so that a vaccine or drug to fight Covid-19 can be rolled out quickly around the world. At the same time, charities such as Oxfam are leading a campaign for a “People’s Vaccine” and Left-leaning economists are arguing that companies shouldn’t be

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Given age, general grumpiness and our correct if rare worldview we rarely see newspaper articles - those not written by ourselves that is - that we entirely agree with. An exception is Matthew Lynn on patent pools for vaccines and treatments for the coronavirus:

One iron law of politics and economics is always this: there is no crisis quite so bad that the European Union cannot find a way to make it a little bit worse. This week, the EU is leading efforts to create a so-called “voluntary patent pool” that would suspend intellectual property rules so that a vaccine or drug to fight Covid-19 can be rolled out quickly around the world.

At the same time, charities such as Oxfam are leading a campaign for a “People’s Vaccine” and Left-leaning economists are arguing that companies shouldn’t be allowed to stop treatments being made available to everyone.

People, runs the argument, need to be put before profits.

But hold on. That’s crazy. In truth, we should increase the incentives to find vaccines and drugs to combat the virus – not reduce them.

Quite so.

We face a large and expensive problem. We’d like to mobilise the collective resources of the species to solve it. Our only question is what is the best manner of doing this?

One potential answer is that we ask governments to do it. The problem being that governments do not currently employ the people able to do this and there’s insufficient time to go through a civil service hiring process. This before we even consider the likely outcome of asking PHE to do anything other than berate the population on their girth. Another touted possibility is that we ask the private sector - who do employ the right people already - to do it and then tell them they’ll get nothing more than a pat on the back for doing so. This does work in certain circumstances - it is what medals and titles are for, incentives to action - but rather better with individuals than collectives. This is a collective, not individual, endeavour.

We are thus rather left with the thing that already does operate as the incentive for private sector economic activity - money. It’s a vaccine, most rich world doses will be bought by governments, so it’s going to be taxpayer cash spent here. However it’s done poor world doses are going to be supplied at something like cost plus a tiny bit as near all vaccines are today.

Our two options now being that governments can offer a prize for the treatment or vaccine or governments can offer a prize for a treatment or vaccine. The first could be a large lump sum payment for whoever gets there first with something that works. The second would be the award of a patent - therefore the ability to profit from the use of - for whatever works. Which is the best system?

It is unlikely that governments will agree to pay the sorts of sums that would provide the correct incentive. This is an expensive problem, it is immediate, a week makes a difference to the true cost - we should be talking billions as that prize. Politics will not pay that sum, it is not conceivable that it would, not as one lump sum to the winner of the race.

It is also true that we don’t in fact want the one treatment or vaccine. We want as many as actually manage to do something. Governments are most certainly not going to pay out billions each time for multiple solutions, partial solutions or complete. We don’t and cannot know now which of any of the multiplicity of possible solutions will prove most valuable. We don’t know now that is, it’s something we’re going to have to try and see.

So, our only useful and viable solution is that each of those - partial or complete - solutions get out there, be used, then people get paid some sum dependent upon how effective they are. That effectiveness being estimated by how often they’re used. This being exactly what the patent system does do.

That is, we already have the system in place to deal with this immediate and expensive problem. Pay people a small fee for each use of their developed solution - patents.

Why is anyone arguing about this?


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Tim Worstall
Tim Worstall is a British-born writer and Senior Fellow of the Adam Smith Institute. Worstall is a regular contributor to Forbes and the Register. He has also written for the Guardian, the New York Times, PandoDaily, the Daily Telegraph blogs, the Times, and The Wall Street Journal. In 2010 his blog was listed as one of the top 100 UK political blogs by Total Politics.

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