Opinion: Stop Private Speculation in COVID-19 Research
Opinion: Stop Private Speculation in COVID-19 Research

Opinion: Stop Private Speculation in COVID-19 Research

We present an economic plan for a collective sharing of scientific knowledge on the pandemic.

Emiliano Brancaccio, and Ugo Pagano
Mar 23, 2020

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The crisis triggered by the emergence of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus requires immediate leaps forward in economic policy strategies. In a document published in the Financial Times on March 13 we have underlined the urgency of international coordination to implement an immediate “anti-virus” plan in three points: immediate control of capital markets to counter speculation, public investments in health care and research, and interventions to remedy possible “disorganization” in the markets that could create bottlenecks in production and difficulties in supplying goods and services even beyond the health care sector.

Sharing scientific and technical knowledge publicly means winning the battle against the virus.

One aspect of this public planning seems particularly urgent to us. It is necessary to denounce the behavior of private agents driven by a profit motive who are causing slowdowns in research against the virus. There are private companies that announce impending discoveries in vaccine research everyday, and in this way they see their stock market values explode. There are other companies that already have knowledge that could be useful in the fight against the pandemic, but are waiting to make it available to the best bidders.

We argue that these speculations hinder research and must be stopped immediately. Public authorities must remedy these “market failures” by ensuring maximum collective sharing of the scientific knowledge necessary to tackle the ongoing pandemic. Some recent proposals around the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO) and the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) seem to be moving in this direction, and in other countries the problem is being examined, but the action is too slow and seems to be vitiated by a privatized approach to drug development that is now obsolete in the face of the crisis.

In our view, five policy actions are urgent:

  1. A public purchase is needed to make available for free to the international scientific community all intellectual property rights directly or indirectly inherent in research associated with the fight against the coronavirus.
  2. It is necessary to establish a system of public rewards for all researchers who share their knowledge, even partial, in the battle against the virus.
  3. New restrictive patents and any secrecy related to the fight against the virus should be strongly discouraged by imposing new taxation on intellectual property rights.
  4. An international public research agency should be set up in order to better coordinate scientists and increase the speed and effectiveness of new research.
  5. This international effort can be financed with the issue of corona-bonds directly purchased by central banks, for a percentage equal to a quarter point of GDP of each advanced country.

The more-comprehensive the international coordination of these actions, the better the results will be. We can therefore ideally act within the framework of the United Nations institutions and also through the establishment of a World Research Organization (WRO) for the regulation of transactions between countries. In the absence of global coordination, it will be necessary to act for the widest possible multi-lateral agreements with those countries that participate. Any free-riding behavior by private institutions or authorities of individual countries in which they exploit the effort occurring in public research and open science for the purpose of profit-making patents will have to be judged as an act of “unfair competition.” Such behavior should be monitored and sanctioned even with the reprisals already admitted by the current international trade agreements.

This is a huge collective challenge, which affects health, science, technology, and economics. It is also a struggle against outdated ideas and pre-established private interests. Sharing scientific and technical knowledge publicly means winning the battle against the virus. Anyone who irresponsibly decides to play privately as a free-rider will have to be reported and isolated.

Emiliano Brancaccio is a professor of economic policy at the University of Sannio in Italy. Ugo Pagano is a professor of economic policy at the University of Siena, in Italy.