Corey Friedman

Pope Francis is urging drugmakers to release their lucrative patents on coronavirus vaccines, allowing the lifesaving medicine to be distributed worldwide.

Big Pharma may still relent, but the fact that it can fold its collective arms as COVID-19 sweeps the globe is nothing short of a scandal. The blame resides not in labs or boardrooms but in Washington.

“I ask all the great pharmaceutical laboratories to release the patents,” the pope said during a remote speech to the World Meeting of Popular Movements. “Make a gesture of humanity and allow every country, every people, every human being, to have access to the vaccines.

“There are countries where only 3% or 4% of the inhabitants have been vaccinated.”

Uncle Sam, not drug companies, should be in the driver’s seat. After all, American taxpayers picked up the tab.

Operation Warp Speed enriched a half-dozen pharmaceutical giants to the tune of $12.4 billion. While some of that money purchased initial doses of the three vaccines to which the Food & Drug Administration initially granted emergency use authorization, billions of dollars were spent on research and development.

Johnson & Johnson took in $456 million for development and manufacturing, while Moderna has received $955 million for research and clinical studies alone. Pfizer’s $1.95 billion government contract solely funded manufacturing.

GlaxoSmithKline, Novavax and AstraZeneca also accepted boatloads of taxpayer cash.

Why aren’t the formulas for these publicly funded vaccines in the public domain? Because no one in the White House or on Capitol Hill thought better of forking over the money with virtually no strings attached.

Federal law grants drugmakers a 20-year patent on new medications, but Congress could have easily exempted COVID-19 vaccines from that framework in one of its bloated, pork-laden stimulus bills. President Donald Trump’s administration could have required companies to waive patent and exclusivity rights as a condition of cashing their government checks.

Not one politician, Republican or Democrat, lifted a finger. Whether that reflects the pharmaceutical lobby’s muscle in Washington or mere incompetence, the sorry state of affairs is the government’s fault.

Drug development is ordinarily a gamble, with companies investing millions to test their scientists’ hypotheses and see which ones pan out.

Some promising formulas flop, but when a drug makes it to market, its manufacturer receives exclusive rights that allow it to recoup R&D costs many times over.

Studies and clinical trials are the cost of doing business, and there’s some free-market fairness in the notion that placing a big bet on a wonder drug should pay off with an eventual windfall. But even the staunchest intellectual property hawk can’t justify socializing the risk and privatizing the profit.

Long before COVID-19 was on our radar, U.S. taxpayers were already shouldering a substantial share of domestic drugmakers’ costs. Federal R&D funding topped $142 billion in fiscal year 2019, according to the National Science Foundation.

You and I helped pay 41% of all U.S. pharmaceutical R&D expenses in 2018. What does this level of largesse buy us? Access to new medicines once they progress through the FDA’s glacial approval process, which normally takes up to 10 years, and the highest retail markups in the world.

Prescription drug prices are 2.56 times higher in the United States than in other countries, the RAND Corp. revealed in a January report. That figure includes generic medications sold at bottom dollar. For brand-name meds alone, American patients pay 3.4 times more than the world average.

Pharmaceutical giants often spend more on marketing than R&D. Marketing: Those achingly upbeat commercials urging you to ask your doctor about such-and-such before a lobotomized auctioneer speed-reads a list of side effects, convincing you to buy the medicine your taxes helped make at triple the price patients in Europe will pay.

Tens of thousands could die before companies with legal dibs on the coronavirus vaccines can scale up to meet worldwide demand or license the recipe to the highest bidder. Such ingratitude and venality would be enough to turn the stomach if it weren’t for the sticker shock on acid reflux pills.

It’s too late to require Operation Warp Speed participants to share their formulas. Congress could discourage such ghoulish hoarding in the future by deciding drugs substantially developed on the public dime belong to the people who picked up the tab.

Corey Friedman is an opinion journalist who explores solutions to political conflicts from an independent perspective. Follow him on Twitter: @coreywrites. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.