23 May 2024

Common sense, whether it’s humanitarian or economic, dictates that if the world has found a drug that can make the coronavirus a lot less scary, the treatment should be made available to everyone as soon, as cheap and as equitable as possible. Good news is that the world is probably on the verge of finding such a drug, but that common sense could be severely tested.

Molnupiravir, which was announced just recently but has become a household name right now, is being advertised as a possible new pill that can turn COVID-19 into some kind of nuisance, one that disturbs or annoys people who have it rather than frightens them to death. One major American news outlet has called it a “game changer”, one that could end the worldwide lockdown really soon.

The question is whether the world, when it is “reopened”, will remain the same old one. By that, it’s a world where many people in the medical profession, those aspiring to be in it, or the parents wanting their children to be in it, are motivated by foreseeable wealth whereas the chances to save lives are secondary.

A scramble to purchase, or to reserve, or subcontract the production of, molnupiravir has begun. Drug-maker Merck’s stock prices immediately jumped. But, menacingly villainous as it is, the coronavirus has opened up a new ideological territory where the always-controversial issue of copyrights and drug patents will be subjected to new scrutiny. The pandemic has threatened both lives and economies, sparking fresh debate on whether human beings are doing the right things regarding international trade, and related commercial morals and etiquette.

Humanely, the whole world will be watching America, because molnupiravir is emerging from there and concerns the very things the superpower has preached about time and again _ morality,equality and human rights. Economically, inexpensive and immediate prevalence of molnupiravir makes sense for struggling industries around the globe. Politically, a life-saving drug being cheap and provided to all is true democracy.

Throughout modern world history, “intellectual property rights” have been powerfully defended and “copycats” vilified. Truth is that copyrights gave birth to copycats because the former made genuine products out of reach of poor people, who still constitute the majority of the world. There have also been smugglers and hackers who illegally take authentic innovations or content into their own hands and made them available to those who otherwise would not have got it.

The coronavirus and molnupiravir have changed and will continue to change human perspectives on how innovations should be safeguarded, if at all. Intellectual property rights are, in fact, an ancient subject of debate. Many lines of anti-copyright argument are familiar. How many talented people in the show business grew up watching “stolen” movies? How many great footballers resorted to unlawful “streams” of matches when they were kids? How many poor vendors earn their living selling fake bags, shoes or shirts? How many creatives learned from things that otherwise could have been too expensive to touch or look at? And these are not life-and-death questions, unlike the one concerning drug patents.

The biggest argument for intellectual property rights revolves around the “incentives”. If people receive nothing in return for what they find, or create, or innovate, they will not be tempted to push on and nobody will be left to drive the world forward, according to this camp.

This line of argument, however, goes back to the fact that human beings learn after leaving the cradle that whatever they invent, they must be paid for, that they must be materialistically rewarded. The “incentive” argument would not have been there had the first thing everyone learned been that non-materialistic and non-commercial returns do exist for your creation, invention or innovation. In other words, world progress is perfectly possible without the conventional incentives.
After all, the cavemen who discovered fire, or the “crazy” scientists who created or harnessed electricity, or the experimental folks who attempted to fly certainly did not do it for the money.

By Tulsathit Taptim