Vaccines and Patents

Probably the most famous non-patent in the history of innovation is the polio vaccine, discovered and developed by Jonas Salk. When asked who owned the patent to the life-saving formula, Salk famously replied, “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” 

Many people think it was absolutely crazy that Salk did not patent his invention. Polio affected so many people, particularly children, and his vaccine prevented devastating illness and paralysis in so many. It has been estimated that somewhere between 13,000 and 20,000 people were paralyzed annually as a result of polio prior to Salk’s vaccine being released on the market. If Salk had chosen to profit from the vaccine, he could have. In a big way.

His reasons for not patenting the vaccine were very specific to that time period and that situation. Lots of researchers and physicians donated money to the development of it, and Salk felt morally obligated to ensure that his product would be available to all people, regardless of the economic class. His choice was a noble one, but it would not make much sense today. 

The pharmaceutical industry is one of the most profitable industries in existence. Innovations and advances are constantly being made, and researchers are always hard at work trying to find new ways to treat, cure, or prevent disease. If there were no potential for financial gain by patenting formulas and legally protecting vaccines and medications, the incentive to keep pushing the industry would be reduced. Not all scientists are in it for the money – but without money, there is no capital for further research. Our economic climate today does not afford an entire community of physicians and researchers to donate to one particular cause. Our interests are divided, and competition is greater than what it used to be.

Salk was correct about not being able to patent the sun. He saw his discovery as simply “finding something that was there all along.” Patents are designed for things that are formulated and built – not things that occur in nature and are simply “discovered.” That said, almost all vaccines require genetic manipulation and the introduction of certain proteins and biological processes that make the effective. This brings them out of the realm of “naturally occurring” and make them absolutely patentable.

So, while what Salk did was a morally sound gesture, it does not mean that vaccines (or any medical discovery) should be excluded from patents. Patents keep competition alive, and they push the envelope of innovation. We need our scientists to be motivated to keep working to solve some of the biggest and scariest medical problems out there.


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