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Commentary: Weakening of intellectual property rights threatens Maryland’s innovation economy

Nov 3, 2022

Maryland life sciences and biotechnology companies have been at the forefront of the state’s public health response and economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. However, lawmakers are considering policies that weaken the very backbone of Maryland’s robust innovation economy at a time where protecting this industry had never been more critical. Without the necessary policies and protections in place, essential innovation and research, such as COVID-19 clinical trials and cybersecurity development taking place right here in Maryland, could be forced to come to a screeching halt.

Intellectual property (IP) is a critical asset for innovation, research, and development across sectors. IP rights, including copyrights and patents, help defend original works and new inventions, ensuring that a company’s product is distinguishable from others.

Maryland is a hub for growth and innovation across numerous sectors and home to over 618,000 life sciences, manufacturing, cybersecurity and energy small businesses and startups — all of which rely on strong IP protections throughout the process of bringing a new product to market. These protections enable Maryland companies to recoup the enormous costs that go into the research and development that make an innovative idea a reality, while ensuring their ideas are legally protected.

In 2022, the World Trade Organization (WTO) agreed to waive certain IP protections for COVID-19 related vaccines through the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) waiver — a move that is not reaching its intended effect of increasing vaccine production. Instead, waiving IP protections is harming the very industry that was able to rapidly and safely develop COVID-19 therapies and diagnostics. This decision reinforced the misconception that IP protections act as barriers when developing COVID-19 vaccines, when, in reality, the difficulty of distribution challenges proved to be the main obstacle.

With over 3,000 biopharmaceutical companies that generate over $17 billion in economic activity, Maryland is one of the nation’s leaders in the life sciences. The state’s biopharmaceutical industry is on the front line of developing lifesaving health solutions, including vaccines, medical tests and cures.

However, without the necessary IP protections in place, Maryland life sciences companies will not be able to engage in critical medical research and development, potentially affecting nearly 45,000 life sciences jobs across the state and hindering one of the state’s largest and most robust economies.

This decision is a slippery slope for weakening IP — now, the WTO is considering extending the TRIPS waiver to include COVID-19 treatments and therapeutics. If IP protections are weakened on one product, the door is opened for protections to be weakened on other therapeutic areas and innovations across sectors, which will reduce the ability to invest in and bring future products and ideas to market, including new cancer treatments or cybersecurity solutions.

Any expansion of the TRIPS waiver could further compromise patient outcomes and global public health, harm Maryland’s ability to respond quickly to future health crises, and undercut critical medical innovation that patients in Maryland, and across the country, rely on for lifesaving treatments.

This proposal undoubtedly reinforces a precedent of weakening IP as a viable solution, not only in health care and the life sciences industry, but across Maryland’s leading industries including energy, information technology, and construction. Enacting policies that jeopardize future investments in innovation would have a devastating impact on local businesses and jobs across the state.

To continue the critical innovation, research, and development happening in our backyards, Maryland policymakers must prioritize policies that protect our innovation ecosystem, not harm it. Without a solid IP policy in Maryland, local companies and businesses will not be able to continue their efforts toward finding tomorrow’s solutions to today’s challenges. To support a healthy innovation ecosystem in Maryland, it is essential our policymakers do not support proposals to weaken intellectual property rights, including weakening IP protections on COVID-19 treatments, especially while Maryland jobs and businesses are on the line.

Mary D. Kane is a proven leader in state, federal and global organizations and joined the Maryland Chamber of Commerce as President & CEO in October 2021.

In her role, she focuses on continuing to move the Chamber forward as the leading voice for businesses in Maryland. Kane has an extensive background in leading state, federal and global organizations, most recently at the U.S. State Department as Director of the National Museum of American Diplomacy.  

This op-ed was originally published by The Baltimore Sun on October 31, 2022.