The evisceration of intellectual property rights will disrupt university research, a source of innovation | Columns


The Biden administration recently announced its support for a World Trade Organization initiative to remove intellectual property protections from COVID-19 vaccines.

This approval, while well-intentioned, should send shivers down the spines of workers in R&D labs at universities and companies across America. Especially since it follows attempts by some policymakers to seize the intellectual property of American companies, using a strained interpretation of a four-decade-old law.

Removing intellectual property protections would remove incentives for private sector investors to take initial discoveries – often made in academic labs – and turn them into tangible drugs and medical devices that actually benefit patients.

Proponents of removing intellectual property protections often focus on effective drugs that initially benefited from research at a federally funded university and therefore should be “controlled” by the government. These intellectual property rights, however, are currently protected by the Law on Patent Procedures for Universities and Small Businesses. This bipartite legislation, enacted in 1980 and better known as the Bayh-Dole Act, allows universities to own and license inventions resulting from federally funded research.

Universities license intellectual property to private sector companies that commercialize research findings and make the products available to the public. Prior to this law, the federal government (not the universities) owned the rights to these patents. Some 30,000 of those patents languished, gathering dust in federal filing cabinets, less than one in 20 reaching the clinic or the open market.

For the old Senses. Birch Bayh (D-Indiana) and Bob Dole (R-Kansas), the purpose of the law was to “stimulate the interaction between public and private research so that patients receive the benefits of innovative science sooner.” Over the next 40 years, their legislation enabled universities and industry licensees to develop and bring to market more than 200 new life-saving drugs.

All of them witnessed the most recent fruit of the Bayh-Dole Act – the University of Pennsylvania’s mRNA technology was licensed to Pfizer and Moderna, who used it to develop COVID-19 vaccines.

I’m concerned that Biden’s waiver of intellectual property over COVID-19 vaccines, coupled with ongoing attempts to hijack the Bayh-Dole Act to allow government officials to change the terms of intellectual property licenses that companies receive from universities, will deter the private sector from investing in the beginning. to stage academic inventions that are years away from becoming viable commercial products.

If companies fear that the government will step in after years of expensive R&D, they will not invest in the first place.

IP protections exist for a reason – because they work. We must not let the admirable pursuit of health equity kill the goose that lays the golden eggs of innovation.

Carol Mimura is the former Executive Director of the Office of Technology Licensing at the University of California at Berkeley and the current UC Berkeley Assistant Vice Chancellor for Intellectual Property and Industrial Research Alliances. This article originally appeared in the Mercury News.

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