Inheritance of ideas

Who owns the vaccine? The pharmaceutical companies and the countries they belong to or the universities that helped develop them? Or if one may dare ask, in the testosterone filled debate over intellectual property (IP) rights, the people?

Everyone agrees that the pandemic is humankind’s biggest challenge in over a century. Everyone also agrees that this pandemic does not respect borders and that no one is safe until everyone is vaccinated. But talk about an IP waiver so that people are vaccinated at the earliest, and the landscape swiftly turns into quicksand. Responses vary from a Gatesian rap on the knuckles to bureaucratic desk-thumping, US-style. 

Bill Gates has refused to consider the possibility that an easier patenting regime will help the cause. The US has supported the call for a waiver, but left the decision to the “consensus-based nature of the WTO”, which makes no exception for a raging virus on the rampage. Why the fuss with IP?

IP is an asset. It has resale value and is expected to yield future cash flows. It fosters innovation and values ideas. Although this is a relatively recent understanding of IP, any attempt to reimagine the value chain of ideas is heresy.

When did the power of an idea become hostage to a price tag?

The answer depends on who is asking and whose idea are we talking about? The first recorded instance of IP as a monetisable right comes from 500 BC, from the Greek colony of Sybaris, in southern Italy. Known for the hedonistic lifestyle of its residents, the city had become a synonym for opulence. The chefs of Sybaris were granted year-long monopolies for creating signature culinary delights — paving the way for future valuations of ideas and also, perhaps, for the modern-day celebrity chef.

However, even years later, around 1000-1500 AD, there was no value assigned to the idea and practice of inoculation against smallpox discovered in China and India. The idea travelled freely to the West, on the wings of the Ottoman Empire, making its way through Africa and Turkey to England. In the late 1700s, Edward Jenner adapted the variolation technique to produce a vaccine against smallpox and only then did modern medicine pin a timeline on this life-saving discovery.

Turn to the world of art and literature and similar stories play out. Both the Panchatantra and the Arabian Nights (origins in India and Persia) moved freely between cultures and languages. Even within their countries of origin, they morphed into different versions and forms of the original. Authorship is disputed for Panchatantra and anonymous for the Arabian Nights and yet their contribution to literary style, form, culture and content is unmatched. Both vie for the title of the most translated text after the Bible.

However, in Rome, around the same time as these stories were being told and retold around the world, a judge convicted poets for stealing the words of others. This is the first recorded case of IP theft. Even in the ancient world, IP was GPS-enabled: More valued in the West than in the East.

Tragically, it still is. Several accounts talk about how the US sent its spies into the textile mills of the UK to copy the design of the power loom in the early 1800s (Trade Secrets: Intellectual Piracy and the Origins of American Industrial Power by Doron S Ben-Atar). Yet no country guards its designs more ferociously than the US today, be it a cola concentrate or a vaccine IP.

The US has also been predatory in its hunt for IPs. The most recent case is the fight for the shoe label Ugg, a quintessentially Australian brand. It once epitomised the Australian love for the outdoors but, as its popularity and sales grew manifold in the US, it became the centre of an acrimonious battle for identity. Ultimately Australian shoe makers backed off.

However, there were many in the West who played differently, most notably Jenner who wanted vaccination to be free. He didn’t discriminate between nations and called himself the vaccine clerk of the world.

But it is not Jenner’s spirit of largesse and nobility that Jesse B Bump, a lecturer on global health policy at the Harvard TH Chan Public School of Health, invokes when he makes the case for free and speedy deployment of vaccines. He talks of giving credit where it is due. In a recent interview to the Times of India, he said that the health institutions and those involved in healthcare “owe an incalculable debt to the people of South Asia.” He believes the global community has gained immensely from South Asians in formulating and ultimately enabling the vaccines that cured smallpox. Jenner built on an idea that he heard from a British ambassador in Istanbul, who had probably learnt the techniques from the medicine men of the Ottoman Empire who, in turn, had adapted the concept that was prevalent in India and China. Can one attach a value to that?

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