Titanic Plague

November 2005


With all the sensational press around the impending avian flu pandemic, people keep crying over the lack of anti-viral drugs. If there is a pandemic and millions of people die, the fault will lie squarely on one factor: intellectual property.

Imagine, if you will, that it is a bit before 1 AM, April 15, 1907 and you are seated in a First Class salon of the Titanic. The Captain appears and clears his throat.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he begins, "we've struck an iceberg and we're sinking. Now, I know you thought this ship unsinkable, but that is beside the point. We are going down quite quickly." The captain pauses for effect. "Now we have another problem," he continues. "We don't have enough lifeboats for the number of people on board, so we've decided to auction off places in the lifeboats to the highest bidder. Cash only, please, and the bidding will start at $1000 -- what are your bids?"

This sounds like a ridiculous circumstance, but one that closely mirrors the actual events of that night, when the crew gave preference to First Class passengers and locked steerage passengers, including women and children, below decks.

The media is full of stories about an impending avian flu pandemic. Every story includes an item about the lack of available medicine (Tamiflu), from the pharmaceutical giant Roche -- they just won't be able to produce enough of the drug by the time the flu happens. All the stories are about how to make the best use of the limited supply -- just like figuring out how many people are going to get places in the Titanic's too few lifeboats.

Well, here's an astounding idea that nobody is talking about: eminent domain. Eminent domain is when the government seizes something in the interest of the public good. The owner is compensated, but quite often earns far less of a return than they thought they deserved. Why doesn't the government, in the interest of potentially saving millions of lives, just seize the drug and make its technology a matter of public record. It would seem that 2200 drug companies around the world could churn out considerably more of the stuff in a short period of time than one drug company can.

For some reason, people think it unfair to make Roche "suffer" because millions of people may die. The Titanic's lifeboats were property of the White Star Line and the captain had every right to auction off spaces to earn back some of the money the line was going to lose from the ship's sinking -- it's only fair, at least by Roche's argument.

Champions of intellectual property foam at the mouth at the mere suggestion that some things might be better in the public domain than in private ownership. They don't care that millions may die. They care about the profits that will be denied to the owners and stockholders of Roche. What if this suddenly public technology led to a whole new range of drugs that would save millions more lives or maybe even prevent or cure certain cancers? The crime to the intellectual property mavens is that their companies won't make billions in profits. Obviously saving millions of lives through new drugs or curing cancer is not a worthy end in itself. It isn't a benefit because it does not create wealth. It is not proposed because it doesn't make a profit.

Just remember this: when your father dies of avian flu, or your daughter, or your husband -- they died to keep private property private.

When Jonas Salk invented the Polio vaccine, he published everything about it and encouraged pharmaceutical companies all over the world to make and use that vaccine to end the scourge of polio on a planetary scale. If he'd kept it private and secret, he'd have made much more money, but there would have been millions of people needlessly crippled.

It is almost exactly fifty years since the Polio vaccine was given to the world. In that fifty years, we have seen the almost complete ascendency of private capital over public good. We have the WTO to ensure that the same rules apply everywhere, for the protection of private property. There is only one term for a society more intent on profit than saving lives: morally bankrupt. It isn't free enterprise that kills children who could be saved. It is greed. It isn't ignorance that keeps sick people sick when they could be cured. It is avarice.

Running the world to make a profit results in a world not worth living in.

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