Fact Check: The WHO Draft Treaty Would Sabotage Pandemic Preparedness

America’s strong intellectual property system played a pivotal role in the rapid global response to the COVID-19 pandemicPatents provided crucial incentives for the development of life-saving vaccines, therapies, and diagnostic tests, all of which were distributed globally. However, despite these successes, there are ongoing efforts by certain global leaders to pursue an international agreement at the World Health Organization (WHO) that would erode essential patent rights. Such a move would jeopardize our ability to effectively address future global health crises.

On February 3, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus delivered a speech presenting several arguments in favor of this draft treaty. However, closer examination discredits these claims.

Claim:“A lack of sharing of information and a lack of sharing of resources and tools” left developing nations behind during the pandemic response.
In reality:Patents are publicly disclosed, meaning that they encourage rather than inhibit the sharing of information. Contrary to the claim, vaccine hesitancy and distribution issues within developing countries were the major barriers to uptake in low and middle income countries, rather than a lack of cooperation from wealthier nations.
Claim:The proposed WHO draft treaty would only encourage countries to “share information.”
In reality:The way the draft treaty would require the sharing of information would discourage investment in responses to global health emergencies. The draft treaty’s mandatory data sharing and limitations on royalty collections for pandemic-related patents would chill the critical private investment that brought about the rapid response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including the immediate development of new vaccines created and manufactured in record time. Strong intellectual property rights protecting inventions and trade secrets are vital to incentivize innovation, as they allow companies to risk investments with the promise of recovering it, if successful. Proposals like this draft treaty, which effectively allow others to copy without compensation, turn this incentive system on its head, imperiling future pandemic readiness.
Claim:“If [the draft treaty] had been in place before Covid-19, we would not have lost so much.”
In reality:The existing system of strong intellectual property rights meant that at the onset of COVID-19, life-saving technologies — such as N95 masks, ventilators, and the cutting-edge mRNA platform — had already been developed. Medical treatments specifically targeting COVID-19 were developed in record time. If the draft treaty had been in place during the years prior to the pandemic, its weaker patent protections would have hindered the development of these critical interventions — likely causing the world to suffer greater losses of life and productivity than it actually did.
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