It seems worth noting a historical milestone today. 67 years ago today, March 26, 1953, Dr. Jonas Salk announced the vaccine for polio, and saved millions of lives. And this is notable given the current COVID-19 pandemic we’re all living with. However, at a time when we’re having to be vigilant for giant pharmaceutical companies sneakily trying to game the system to get extra exclusivity, and patent maximalists pushing for extended patent terms as an “incentive” to come up with a vaccine, it’s worth noting the simple fact that he did not patent the vaccine. Indeed, in a TV interview with Edward Murrow, Salk famously said “could you patent the sun?”
Right at the beginning of that video you can see the famous exchange:
Murrow: Who owns the patent on this vaccine?
Salk (shocked face): Well… the people I would say. There is no patent… Could you patent the sun?
A few years back, there was an effort by a bunch of patent maximalists to try to recontextualize and minimize that statement. They made up things, claiming that it wasn’t patentable in the first place (wrong), that there was too much prior art (nope), that because so many people had donated money to the research there was a general sense that “the public had already paid for the polio vaccine” and Salk patenting it “would have represented double charging.” Of course, this is all ludicrous, when you recognize that most drugs today, including basically every current effort to deal with COVID-19, are also mainly paid for by taxpayer funds in the form of NIH grants and the like.
The key point, however, is that there are many different incentives — and believing that locking up exclusivity in order to jack up the price of a drug or vaccine to obtain monopoly rents, is a silly idea that has no basis in real economics. Jonas Salk proved that in the 1950s and saved millions and eradicated polio. Anyone focusing on patents or other exclusivities in the middle of a pandemic like this is displaying wanton greed and a real misunderstanding of how incentive structures actually work. Today, Jonas Salk is correctly remembered as a hero. Any company looking to block out competition and charge monopoly rents for a treatment of vaccine to today’s pandemic is rightly seen as a greedy profiteer.
The incentive structure for saving the world need not be that individuals need to pay tons of money to get it. Patents on drugs rarely make sense in even normal times. At this moment, they make no sense.