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The United States Drug Industry Opposed Patents

Large portions of the population in the United States, Europe, and other wealthier parts of the world have already been vaccinated, while immunization rates in developing nations are far behind. That is why the United States‘ surprise statement this spring that it will support the lifting of patent protections on COVID-19 vaccinations is so significant. Drugmakers reacted angrily to the move, but public health activists were thrilled.

The European Parliament is now on board with the concept. Waiving patent rights, the argument goes, will enable poorer countries to obtain low-cost generic copies of COVID-19 vaccines, even if they are made in another country, and so assist them in tackling a public health crisis more effectively. Of course, a patent waiver would have significant repercussions for worldwide vaccine production.

However, the announcement in the United States should be viewed in the context of long-running arguments in the US over pharmaceutical patenting. I am a historian who has spent a lot of time researching these topics. My research shows that passionate debates over the morality of drug patenting, as well as efforts to regulate – or even eliminate – pharmaceutical patents, extend back to the founding of the US.

Support for severely reducing or even removing patent rights on medications is far from the radical attitude advocated by some detractors. In many ways, it is a staunchly conservative one. The first patent on a drug was granted in the United States in 1796 for “Dr. Lee’s Windham Bilious Pills,” which were meant to treat intestinal and other issues. Drug companies created an infinite flow of products throughout the next century, all protected by patents and trade secrets. Most of these cures could be easily made in a pharmacy, and some of them appeared to be effective.

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