The Ethics of Vaccinating the World

With millions of lives at stake, should drug makers be forced to share their IP?

October 19, 2021

| by Dave Gilson
llustration of a gavel. Daniel Liévano

Balancing fairness and urgency “is a really hard problem.“ | Daniel Liévano

Vaccinating the world isn’t just a practical challenge; it’s an ethical one as well. How should vaccines be priced fairly? Who deserves to get shots first? Should drug makers be forced to share their intellectual property with poor countries?

These are some of the questions explored in a new case study written by political economist Ken Shotts and casewriter Sheila Melvin. Shotts will teach the case to first-year Stanford GSB students this fall in Leading with Values, the core class he teaches along with colleagues Neil Malhotra and Greg Martin.

Ken Shotts: There’s an analog to this in the AIDS drugs, which was a huge thing that blew up in pharma’s face when they were pricing them at like $10,000 a year and not sharing their intellectual property. They’ve handled it better this time around. They have a sense that if they claim to be mission-driven health care organizations, they can’t do something that is too dissonant with that. And the companies are not making it up when they say these vaccines are really hard to produce. But I think the really interesting question is, Do you have an ethical responsibility to go help others produce them?

From a public policy perspective, once you’ve got the IP, you want it to be shared with everyone instantly. But the right solution can’t be that people make no money off of this. From a consequentialist or utilitarian perspective, finding the right balance is a really hard problem.

One of the things we hammer home in our class is that everyone’s perception is always driven by self-serving biases. So when the pharma companies say it is crucial that we have strong patent protection so that we get more life-saving drugs and vaccines going forward, I think they mean it. But the critics say, “You’ve got to share this IP with us now — because if not now, then when?” The pandemic has emphasized that there are real trade-offs and a lot of really difficult choices.

For media inquiries, visit the Newsroom.

Explore More