joe biden

The global organizations and populists who aim to seize COVID vaccine tech and IP

When Donald Trump claimed in September 2020 that every American would have access to vaccines by April 2021, his comments received scorn. The Washington Post said his claims were “without evidence,” CNN quoted health experts who said it was impossible, and The New York Times claimed it would take another decade.

Now, a year into this pandemic, nearly half of the eligible population has received at least one vaccine dose in the U.S., and distribution has been opened to every American adult.

Operation Warp Speed, which invested tax dollars and helped reduce bureaucracy across the board, has contributed to what has truly been a miraculous effort by vaccine firms.

While Trump’s proclamations eventually become true and the question of vaccine ability has been settled, there is now pressure on the Biden administration to turn over domestic vaccine supply to countries with skyrocketing cases.

On Sunday, the U.S. declared it will send additional medical supplies to India, currently experiencing the largest global spike in cases.

But at international bodies, countries and activist groups are petitioning for far more: they want to force biotech companies to waive intellectual property rights on vaccines and COVID-related medical technology.

Along with nearly 100 other countries, India and South Africa are the architects of a motion at the World Trade Organization called a TRIPS Waiver (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights).

If the waiver is triggered, it would ostensibly nullify IP protections on COVID vaccines, allowing other countries to copy the formulas developed by private vaccine firms to inoculate their populations and play into the hands of future governments more hostile to private innovation.

This week, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai met with the heads of the various vaccine makers to discuss the proposal, but it is uncertain if the Biden administration will support the measure at the WTO.

While many companies have voluntarily pledged to sell them at cost or even offered to share information with other firms, this measure would have more far-reaching implications.

This coalition seeking the TRIPS waiver includes Doctors Without Borders, Human Rights Watch, and World Health Organization Secretary-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who first backed this effort in 2020 before any coronavirus vaccine was approved.

They claim that because COVID represents such a global threat and because western governments have poured billions in securing and helping produce vaccines, low and middle-income countries should be relieved of the burden of purchasing them.

Considering the specialized knowledge needed to develop these vaccines and the cold storage infrastructure required to distribute them, it seems implausible that any of this could be achieved outside the traditional procurement contracts we’ve seen in the European Union and the U.S.

That said, rather than celebrating the momentous innovation that has led to nearly a dozen globally-approved vaccines to fight a deadly pandemic in record time, these groups are trumpeting a populist message that pits so-called “rich” countries against poor ones.

Intellectual property rights are protections that help foster innovation and provide legal certainty to innovators so that they can profit from and fund their efforts. A weakening of IP rules would actively hurt the most vulnerable who depend on innovative medicines and vaccines.

If the cost of researching and producing a COVID vaccine is truly $1 billion as is claimed, with no guarantee of success, there are relatively few biotechnology or pharmaceutical companies that can stomach that cost.

BioNTech, the German company headed by the husband-wife team of Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci that partnered with Pfizer for trials and distribution of their mRNA vaccine, was originally founded to use mRNA to cure cancer.

Before the pandemic, they took on massive debt and scrambled to fund their research. Once the pandemic began, they pivoted their operations and produced one of the first mRNA COVID vaccines, which hundreds of millions of people have received.

With billions in sales to governments and millions in direct private investment, we can expect the now-flourishing BioNTech to be at the forefront of mRNA cancer research, which could give us a cure. The same is true of the many orphan and rare diseases that do not otherwise receive major funding.

Would this have been possible without intellectual property protections?

Moderna, for its part, has stated it will not enforce the IP rights on its mRNA vaccine and will hand over any research to those who can scale up production. The developers of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine have pledged to sell it at cost until the pandemic is over.

While this should smash the narrative presented by the populists and international organizations who wish to obliterate IP rights, instead they have doubled down, stating that these companies should hand over all research and development to countries that need them.

If we want to be able to confront and end this pandemic, we will continue to need innovation from both the vaccine makers and producers who make this possible. Granting a one-time waiver will create a precedent of nullifying IP rights for a host of other medicines, which would greatly endanger future innovation and millions of potential patients.

Especially in the face of morphing COVID variants, we need all incentives on the table to protect us against the next phase of the virus. 

Rather than seeking to tear them down those who have performed the miracle of quick, cheap, and effective vaccines, we should continue supporting their innovations by defending their intellectual property rights.

Yaël Ossowski (@YaelOss) is deputy director of the Consumer Choice Center, a global consumer advocacy group.

Coalition Letter in Support of Mileage-Based User Fees for US Highway Funding

Dear Member of Congress,

As Congress considers surface transportation reauthorization, its top priority should be restoring the longstanding users-pay/users-benefit principle for highway funding. Further increasing the reliance of the Highway Trust Fund on revenue streams untethered from use, as well as general fund bailouts, would not only fail to address the core fiscal challenges of the present, it would threaten the future health of America’s highways.

Congress should closely examine lessons learned in the numerous ongoing state road usage charge pilot programs and build any future federal trials upon those findings, including ensuring that all forms of surface transportation are covered, including heavy trucks and passenger vehicles. A federal road usage charge trial should be nationwide in scope and done in cooperation with the states, building on best practices developed across the states, and should focus on replacing fuel taxes.

When Congress passed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which created the modern Interstate Highway System, this was coupled with the Highway Revenue Act. The Revenue Act established the Highway Trust Fund, which authorized the Treasury to collect taxes on producers and importers of fuel, who then pass most of that tax burden on to road users.

Set at a per-gallon rate, the rationale for the taxes was to link highway use with highway infrastructure investment. Prior to the creation of the Highway Trust Fund, federal-aid highways were funded out of general revenues and drivers did not bear the costs of the infrastructure they used. In addition, all federal taxpayers—even those who did not drive—were thereby forced to pay for highways.

Adhering to the users-pay/users-benefit principle is superior to general revenue funding for a number of reasons:

  1. Fairness: Highway users benefit from the improvements their user fees generate.
  2. Proportionality: Users who drive more pay more.
  3. Self-limiting: The imposition of a fee under which proceeds may only be used for the specified purpose imposes a de-facto limit on how high that fee can be.
  4. Funding Predictability: Highway use and therefore highway user revenues do not fluctuate wildly in the short-run.
  5. Signaling Investment: Because revenue roughly tracks use, the mechanism provides policy makers with an important signal as to how much infrastructure investment is needed to maintain a desired level of efficiency.

Congress should also make clear what the users-pay/users-benefit principle is not intended to do:

  1. Road usage charges should replace fuel taxes, not supplement them.
  2. Road use charges are not a tax, but a user fee.
  3. Any users-pay/users-benefit program is not intended to force behavioral change, nor should the program have any environmental or social goals beyond the adequate funding of the Trust Fund.
  4. User fees are not a surveillance program and best practices being developed at the state level ensure that users’ data are protected from misuse.
  5. User fees are not intended to force rural drivers to pay more, any more than fuel taxes punish rural drivers who tend to drive longer distances in less fuel-efficient vehicles.

For these reasons, we urge you to prioritize protecting and strengthening the users-pay principle in the 2021 surface transportation reauthorization and support the development of a nationwide, interoperable road usage charge trial.


Iain Murray
Vice President for Strategy
Competitive Enterprise Institute

The Honorable Andrew H. Card, Jr.
Former White House Chief of Staff, United States Secretary of Transportation

Douglas Holtz-Eakin
American Action Forum*
*Affiliation for identification purposes only

Hon. Samuel K. Skinner
Former United States Secretary of Transportation

James L. Martin
60 Plus Association

Saulius “Saul” Anuzis
60 Plus Association

Steve Pociask
President / CEO
American Consumer Institute

Ike Brannon
Capital Policy Analytics

Andrew F. Quinlan
Center for Freedom and Prosperity

Matthew Kandrach
Consumer Action for a Strong Economy

Yaël Ossowski
Deputy Director
Consumer Choice Center

Ian Adams
Executive Director
International Center for Law & Economics

Brandon Arnold
Executive Vice President
National Taxpayers Union

Adrian Moore, Ph.D.
Vice President of Policy
Reason Foundation*
Former Commissioner, National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission
*Affiliation for identification purposes.

David Williams
Taxpayers Protection Alliance

Roslyn Layton, PhD
Aalborg University
Senior Contributor, Forbes

Tom Giovanetti
Institute for Policy Innovation


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