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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Lori Otto Punke: How to hurt Washington’s workers without supporting public health

Lori Otto Punke

By Lori Otto Punke

Intellectual property plays a critical role here in Washington, where IP-intensive industries account for more than one in three jobs. Robust IP protections fuel the innovation engine that makes our state’s economy one of the fastest growing in the nation.

Concerningly, the World Trade Organization – the 164-nation body that governs international trade – is weighing a proposal that would severely weaken global IP rules. If enacted, these changes would stifle medical innovation, hurt the economy, and eliminate good union jobs in manufacturing – especially here in the Evergreen State.

The proposed reforms stem from the WTO’s decision last June to pare back intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines.

Now, WTO members are debating whether to take that decision a step further to include COVID-19 diagnostics and therapeutics as well. That would be a historic mistake.

Supporters of weakening IP protections for COVID-19 diagnostics and therapeutics claim that such steps would ensure equitable access to treatment across the globe – the same argument used to push through the vaccine waiver.

But, as with vaccines, their argument is not supported by the evidence. When COVID-19 vaccines reached the market, drug companies quickly formed hundreds of global partnerships to improve vaccine supply, leading to a surplus – not a deficit – of vaccine doses.

We’re seeing the same story unfold with COVID-19 diagnostic tools and treatments. More than 11 million patients, including seven million in over 100 middle- and low-income countries, have access to Gilead’s antiviral drug, remdesivir, thanks to the voluntary licensing program the company established in 2020. Pfizer took a similar tack with its COVID-19 drug Paxlovid, as did Merck with its oral antiviral molnupiravir.

Put simply, handing the recipe for COVID-19 treatments and diagnostics over to foreign nations won’t boost global public health. But it will punish the U.S. scientists, businesses, and workers who brought these medical breakthroughs to patients around the world.

That’s especially true here in Washington, where our state’s 1,100 life-science businesses and research organizations contribute over $30 billion in economic benefits annually and support more than 100,000 jobs.

Those jobs go far beyond researchers and scientists. Tens of thousands of union jobs in the skilled trades – think plumbers, electricians, and sheet metal workers – exist thanks to the state’s growing number of biopharmaceutical manufacturing and research facilities.

The WTO’s decision to waive IP protections for COVID-19 vaccines has already dealt a blow to an innovation ecosystem that made the U.S. the world’s leader in medical research and discovery. Extending the IP waiver and allowing foreign countries to manufacture U.S.-discovered and patented COVID-19 diagnostics and treatments would only do further damage. It would send a signal that future research and development might not be worth the effort. Much of our manufacturing capacity – and the jobs that go with it – would move abroad.

As a result, patients in the U.S. and around the globe would suffer.

Sadly, that anti-IP attitude could bleed into other sectors as well. An array of industries wouldn’t exist without America’s IP system, which rewards researchers for taking risks and investing billions to bring new technologies to market.

Here in Washington, the IP-heavy aerospace, tech, clean energy, and artificial intelligence industries have helped make our state’s economy a magnet for talent and investment. The WTO’s upcoming decision could set a dangerous precedent for these industries.

To be clear, IP protections do not impede access to COVID-19 treatments around the globe. They are, in fact, what brought COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics to patients in the first place. They also drive job creation here in Washington – from the master electrician who helps build new pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities, to the tech worker who helps to advance artificial intelligence.

Instead of focusing on misguided attempts to undermine the benefits of strong IP protections, the WTO should turn its attention to other ways to ensure the efficient distribution of COVID-19 therapies. Addressing global supply-chain weaknesses, building new infrastructure, and improving capacity are all good places to start.

For the future of economic growth, medical advancement, and job creation here in Washington and across the nation, we must put this debate to bed.

Lori Otto Punke, of Seattle, is president of the Washington Council on International Trade.

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