Tara Britt

Tara Britt

While all eyes are on the COVID-19 vaccine, particularly getting shots into the arms of North Carolinians who remain unvaccinated, the medical innovation that led to the rapid creation of the lifesaving vaccines — and could lead to groundbreaking cures for COVID-19 and other diseases — could be under threat.

Scientists and researchers worked around the clock to provide safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines, which then went through an accelerated approval timeline based on years of previous vaccine research and development.

Now, federal government actions meant to speed global response to the pandemic also have the power to negatively impact the future development of groundbreaking vaccines and treatments.

The federal government has proposed removing intellectual property (IP) protections for COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers — a move made with the intention of increasing global access to the vaccines that would not actually have that effect. However, longstanding IP protections are critical to North Carolina’s life science industry efforts to develop and manufacture vaccines, medications and therapies.

IP protections enabled biopharmaceutical research companies to move quickly and effectively against COVID-19 and are the foundation for ongoing efforts to ensure new treatments and vaccines are accessible to those who need them.

If IP protections were removed with the hope of speeding up COVID-19 vaccine production and distribution, there would be a drastic decline in the continued medical innovation happening right here in North Carolina, which is needed to find treatments and cures for not only COVID-19, but also the 95 percent of categorized rare diseases that do not have treatments.

According to the National Institutes of Health, one in 10 Americans are affected by a rare disease, with more than half being children. Despite the fact that so many patients are affected by one of the 7,000 categorized rare diseases, only 5 percent of rare diseases have treatments. With more than 1 million North Carolinian patients living with a rare disease, such as cystic fibrosis or chromosomal disorders, the groundbreaking innovation of COVID-19 vaccines provides patients hope for the development of future treatments by showing the medical innovation possible when the biopharmaceutical industry is supported. These medical innovations help patients manage their health and live full and healthy lives.

Lawmakers must learn from the revolutionary development of the COVID-19 vaccine and explore policies that foster domestic medical innovation and bring treatments and cures to the patients who need it.

Removing IP protections from medical innovation will decrease incentives to be innovative eliminating the capital needed for further research, development, and commercialization, and groundbreaking treatments and cures will not be developed for patients who need them. Rare diseases are often overlooked by pharmaceutical companies, but by incentivizing rare disease treatment development, 2,200 treatments have entered the research pipeline. Rare disease patients have already seen the rapid development of life-saving therapies through the development of the COVID-19 pandemic – they deserve medical innovation too.

As policymakers explore avenues to improve healthcare for North Carolinians, they must consider policies that measure against the impact groundbreaking medical innovations provide. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed —perhaps more than ever before—that pharmaceutical innovation saves lives. We need to foster that innovation, not harm it.

Tara Britt is founder and president of the Durham-based Rare Disease Innovations Institute Inc.