The rapid spread and impact of COVID-19 has sparked a global race to find effective treatments and preventative vaccines with the U.S. biopharmaceutical industry leading the charge. America’s biopharmaceutical companies are working together in unprecedented collaboration to defeat COVID-19 by developing the innovative tests, treatments, and vaccines patients need. However, few people have taken a step back to understand exactly why the world is looking to the U.S. biopharmaceutical industry as the world’s best hope to develop a COVID-19 vaccine.
The reason why is because the U.S. is the only country with an established and well-funded private health care system coupled with a robust intellectual property (IP) system that promotes competition and grants the world’s leading innovators the time, resources and opportunity to develop new medicines and improve existing ones to make them more effective for patients. Thanks to these two factors, the U.S. biopharmaceutical industry has created more new medicines over the last decade than the rest of the world combined and is playing a leading role in developing treatments and a vaccine for COVID-19.
Our IP system – including patents – has created a collaborative framework that incentivizes the development of new medicines in the U.S. It does so by requiring innovators to ultimately share information about their inventions with the public and gives innovative biopharmaceutical companies the incentives needed to improve existing medicines. It also promotes collaboration among biopharmaceutical companies, universities and governments as we all work together to find new treatments and cures for patients battling diseases like Alzheimer’s, heart disease and COVID-19.
Developing any medicine is a long, risky, and expensive process. Even after biopharmaceutical companies devote billions of dollars to invent and develop a promising potential medicine, there are no guarantees that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will approve it. In fact, only about one in eight ever are. IP protections help ensure that biopharmaceutical companies continue to invest in developing new and improved medicines in the face of the likelihood that most potential medicines will never become a marketable product. Developing a vaccine for global distribution only magnifies the risks that biopharmaceutical companies take on and magnifies the importance of a strong IP system.
Fortunately, the essential role that innovators – and the strong IP system that protects their inventions – will play in overcoming this pandemic is understood at the highest levels of U.S. public health leadership. In fact, Dr. Anthony Fauci recently noted how our current system, including IP protections, has always relied on partnerships to advance treatments and cures for diseases, saying, “We always need a pharmaceutical partner. I can’t think of a vaccine, even one in which we’ve put substantial intellectual and resource input, that was brought to the goal line without a partnership with industry.”
Right now, there are more than 500 potential COVID-19 treatments and vaccines being tested and more than 1,500 clinical trials in progress around the globe. In the United States, clinical trials are being conducted in almost all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Biopharmaceutical companies are ramping up manufacturing capacity, securing raw materials at unprecedented volumes, and preparing to distribute their candidate vaccines if they obtain regulatory approval or emergency use authorization of any vaccine under development.
It’s precisely because of our strong IP protections that companies can invest so much time and financial support into researching and developing new treatments and vaccines. These protections are what supports biopharmaceutical companies to refine existing treatments to test their effectiveness against COVID-19, including treatments originally developed for viruses like Ebola and SARS. IP protections promote competition and collaboration that are essential for the rapid development of new treatments and cures, particularly during crises like COVID-19.
Tom Wilbur is Director of Public Affairs at PhRMA focusing on message development and opinion research. Prior to joining PhRMA in 2019, Tom worked on Capitol Hill and on political campaigns for nearly a decade, most recently responsible for communications, campaigns and strategy for U.S. Rep. Fred Upton and the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Tom is a proud Michigander and outside of the virtual office enjoys reading, running, hiking, golfing, and spending time with friends and family.