Recalibrating Patent Protection for COVID-19 Vaccines: A Path to Affordable Access and Equitable Distribution
A safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine is the holy grail of our generation, necessary to resurrect our societies, save millions of lives, and protect our economies from collapse. Patent protection is the primary legal mechanism for ensuring timely development of such a vaccine. The patent system is designed to create the necessary incentives for private parties to invest in developing the vaccine, knowing they will enjoy the fruits of their success. Indeed, patent protection is necessary to promote human knowledge generally as well as a quick, safe, and effective COVID-19 vaccine.
Yet in reality, patent law may be obstructing the very goal it is intended to achieve. Patent law grants exclusive rights to inventors, enabling them to charge supracompetitive prices, delaying the distribution and dissemination of emerging technologies. In the context of the COVID-19 vaccine, patent protection means that vaccines will be financially out of reach for many. This produces a paradoxical result: rather than promote technological advancement for the public good, patent protection impedes it. Since universal immunity is necessary in the fight against the pandemic, delays in vaccine distribution can be catastrophic, costing millions of lives and carrying devastating economic consequences.
This Article therefore proposes a novel, alternative patent regime, designed to overcome this paradox at the heart of patent law. We propose a mechanism that will eliminate the problem of overprotection of patent rights that exists under current patent law, while still providing sufficient incentive for inventors to invest in innovative efforts. Under our proposed regime, the developer of a new vaccine will be granted a patent protecting its invention, but this patent will expire once the patentee has recouped its investment, plus a handsome profit. This regime, which we term “recoupment patent,” ensures that inventors are rewarded appropriately—but not excessively—for their innovative efforts. The result is a structure that encourages innovation while minimizing the time it takes for life-saving inventions to reach the public domain. We compare the proposed regime with other suggestions for reforming the patent system, including compulsory licensing; government incentives such as grants, subsidies, and prizes; and altruistic initiatives such as private-public partnerships, patent pools, and patent pledges. We highlight the recoupment patent model’s advantages over these alternatives.