Not since the days of Thomas Edison — the prolific innovator who patented the incandescent lightbulb and a record 1,092 other breakthroughs — have inventors received so much praise.
TIME named the scientists who developed the mRNA platform behind the leading Covid-19 vaccines — Kizzmekia Corbett, Barney Graham, Katalin Kariko and Drew Weissman — “Heroes of the Year” in 2021. Profiles of these revolutionaries and the others who contributed to the groundbreaking vaccines have been featured in several major news outlets.
Behind all these inventors stands the American intellectual property (IP) system, without which none of it would have been possible. From Edison and the Wright Brothers to the bioagricultural researchers developing new ways to feed the globe and Silicon Valley brainiacs churning out new technologies, it is IP rights that provide the incentives and protections for their creations.
Yet despite the critical role inventors and innovation play in the United States, IP rights have come under relentless attack in recent years. And at no time have those attacks been more incessant than during the pandemic — despite the heroic actions of the Covid vaccine scientists made possible by intellectual property incentives.
As Covid-19 began spreading around the world, those scientists sprang into action to develop a safe and effective vaccine. They succeeded in record time. Though vaccines typically take a decade or more to develop, multiple Covid-19 shots were rolled out less than a year after scientists sequenced the virus.
Patents and other intellectual property rights are a major reason why.
America’s IP system enables companies to raise capital from investors, devote funding to research and development projects, recoup those costs, and put revenue toward future projects. Without those safeguards, inventors and investors wouldn’t be able to take financial risks on innovative new treatments like the mRNA vaccines.
The pandemic demonstrated that we must value IP rights — and the inventors who rely on them — if we have any hope of responding effectively to future public health crises.
Paradoxically, however, the opposite is happening. Lawmakers and activists are pushing to dismantle the U.S. IP system that has worked so well since the Framers enshrined it in the Constitution.
Despite the critical role IP played in combating the pandemic, the World Trade Organization waived patent rights for all Covid-19 vaccines at the urging of parties who have long sought to weaken IP protections for their own benefit. Some countries are petitioning the trade body to expand the IP waiver to all Covid-19 therapeutics, and diagnostics as well.
Stateside, activists and politicians are also asking the Biden administration to misuse a decades-old law to nullify patents on certain drugs. Others are claiming the government has the inherent right to simply seize patents — without compensating inventors — whenever it wants.
If successful, these efforts won’t just stunt pharmaceutical research and development. They will also weaken incentives for life-saving innovation across numerous other sectors — with serious consequences for the global economy and millions of American workers. And weakening IP protections would exacerbate the suffering of patients whose diseases now won’t be cured — and deprive Americans of innovations needed to combat climate change or any other societal challenges that require investments in risky innovation.
We’re launching the Council for Innovation Promotion to tell the story of innovation and its importance to our country’s success, explain that strong IP rights are a necessary and critical component behind that innovation, and fend off unfounded attacks on our IP system. We aim to educate lawmakers and the public about the value of IP and advocate for commonsense, bipartisan policies that will promote innovation, boost economic competitiveness, and improve living standards everywhere.
We hope our work will support America’s preeminence as the most innovative country in the world — a country where people celebrate inventors and reward them for their hard and inherently risky work.