“Imagine if one company held a patent covering all methods of testing for Covid-19 antibodies. The company could charge monopoly prices for its tests and prohibit competitors – including non-profit and university labs – from manufacturing or administering their own. If the company made itself the country’s sole supplier, it would struggle to meet demand. The company would profit, but Americans would face waiting lists, confusion and inequitable access – and the virus would keep spreading.
Would a patent holder ever exploit an outbreak of life-threatening infectious disease in this way? Yes. In 2001, the United States faced a credible threat of an anthrax outbreak, yet Bayer refused to license its patents on ciprofloxacin (Cipro), the most effective antibiotic treatment for anthrax, to competitors, even as Bayer itself struggled to supply the nation’s antibiotic stockpile.
It may seem outlandish to imagine one patent creating a wide-ranging monopoly on diagnostic testing, but it happened. In the 1990s and 2000s, biotech companies obtained and enforced broad patents on medical diagnostics that gave them near-total control of testing for particular conditions. One company obtained patents on methods of diagnosing people at high risk of developing breast cancer and “attempted to eliminate … testing at competing laboratories by sending cease-and-desist letters”; another became “the sole provider of genetic testing for many neurological and endocrine conditions”, including muscular dystrophy and Alzheimer’s disease….”