Public Good

The key to our escape from the grip of COVID-19 is the development and distribution of vaccines. The pandemic has been global, but the vaccines have not been given equally around the globe. Instead, they have been used first in the wealthy nations where coronavirus has been incredibly deadly. How then will the vaccine make it to the poor, less developed parts of the world?

One possibility is that the breakthrough techniques for developing the vaccines will be made widely available. The United States has decided to support a patent waiver for the coronavirus vaccine sought after by countries like India and South Africa. While other nations support the suspending of intellectual property protections, the European Union has not yet joined the US.

Pharmaceutical companies are against the waiver because they worry that they will lose the financial incentive to develop life-saving medical treatments. Even if they have made billions from the US government to develop the vaccine, they worry about future losses without patent protection. They also argue that a vaccine is not just a recipe of ingredients; it is also a complicated process involving sophisticated procurement and technique. Just because a company in the developing world has the vaccine recipe does not mean it can produce a safe and effective product.

Global health advocates respond that the patent waiver is a positive step in an extraordinary situation in which so much is on the line. Even if the patent itself is not easily replicated, perhaps the waiver will spur the big pharmaceutical companies to either donate their vaccine or partner with companies in poor countries to produce it. After all, the best way to protect against a future waiver is to work with competitors in developing countries.

There is an instructive parallel in Jewish history. The printing press had a transformational impact on all intellectual life, including the Jewish world. Suddenly, religious texts could be distributed widely and relatively cheaply, which created competition. In fact, in the 16th century a Jewish printer published an edition of Maimonides Mishneh Torah. Shortly thereafter, a non-Jewish publisher put out an edition of the same text but cheaper.

The response was the creation of the haskamah, a letter of endorsement from a prominent rabbi banning the publication of the text by anyone else for a set period of time in order to protect the profits of the original publisher. Not all rabbis approved of the haskamah phenomenon. Some argued that by limiting the publication of Jewish texts, they stifled the proliferation of God’s word.

Both the case of medical treatment and holy texts raise the question of how to balance the public good against private profit. Pharmaceutical companies and publishers put in hard work and resources so that they can make money, but the things they produce are not just commodities; they are also have important social value. Governments are interested in promoting public health, and rabbis are interested in promoting the distribution of Torah.

In trying to find the right balance between profit and public good, perhaps we can learn some lessons from the printing of Jewish texts. Some rabbis felt that printing bans should only last long enough for the publisher to recoup profit from the initial printing run. After that, competition from other printers would be allowed. Similarly, drug companies could be guaranteed a profit, but still ensure that everyone who needs a treatment can get it.

The creation of intellectual property is complex because some examples (a movie, a novel, an appliance) have inherent value for individuals while others (holy texts, life-saving drugs) have inherent value for all of society. Those who produce the later are certainly entitled to compensation, but their work in some sense also belongs to all of us. It is a precious output that is built upon the work of generations and has the potential to advance the course of humanity.

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