Innovation is key to defeating COVID-19

Enacted 40 years ago, the Bayh-Dole Act is helping facilitate the development of coronavirus therapies today

A health care worker conducts a COVID-19 test at a drive-thru facility at George Washington University in Washington in May. The Bayh-Dole Act helped set the stage for the public-private partnerships that are essential to developing a coronavirus vaccine, Dole writes. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
A health care worker conducts a COVID-19 test at a drive-thru facility at George Washington University in Washington in May. The Bayh-Dole Act helped set the stage for the public-private partnerships that are essential to developing a coronavirus vaccine, Dole writes. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted July 24, 2020 at 5:30am

In just a few short months, the world as we know it has been threatened and transformed by a global pandemic — a pandemic that has already claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and devastated the economies of countries across the globe.

Our nation has faced significant challenges before, and we have always risen to the occasion and prevailed. It’s the American way. I remain confident about our resilience in response to the COVID-19 crisis, and much of this confidence arises from legislation that I co-authored in 1980 with my former colleague — the late, great senator from Indiana, Birch Bayh.

The Patent and Trademark Law Amendments Act — commonly known as the Bayh-Dole Act — helped set the stage for the public-private partnerships that are essential to developing a vaccine and effective treatments against the novel coronavirus. Several of the vaccines and therapeutics currently in development likely wouldn’t exist without this legislation. According to Bloomberg Law, “The most promising COVID-19 treatments and vaccines being explored right now were made possible” because of Bayh-Dole.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Bayh-Dole Act. We introduced the legislation because we knew neither government nor industry alone had the intellectual capacity or the resources to develop and produce the kind of innovations that lead to life-saving cures and transformative technologies. As Sen. Bayh and I wrote years ago in a joint op-ed, “The purpose of our Act was to spur the interaction between public and private research so that patients would receive the benefits of innovative science sooner.”

Many research institutions and universities are responsible for the kind of foundational discoveries and inventions that ultimately lead to innovative new cures and products. But it takes a massive investment and additional research and development by the private sector to bring these innovations to market. For every dollar the government spends, industry spends 10 to 100 times that amount.

Before Bayh-Dole, the government retained ownership of patents resulting from federally funded research. That meant private firms had no incentive to partner with research institutions or commercialize their inventions. As a result, very few discoveries made it from the lab to market.

Prior to the law, the government licensed just 5 percent of the 28,000 patents it retained, and few were developed into commercial products. By allowing universities to manage inventions made with government funding, Bayh-Dole paved the way for academic institutions to take the lead in turning their research into real, usable products — and did so without creating any new bureaucracy or spending taxpayer dollars.

In 1980, few could foresee that our legislation would help spur the development of a children's vaccine for rotavirus, quantum computing, the nicotine patch, FluMis, and transformative companies such as Google. Thanks in part to Bayh-Dole, three new companies are launched and two new products are brought to market every day, on average. The law has also jump-started many small businesses — 70 percent of university licenses are issued to startups and small companies. To date, the Bayh-Dole Act has bolstered U.S. economic output by $1.7 trillion, supported 5.9 million jobs, and led to more than 13,000 startup companies.

Today, Bayh-Dole is helping facilitate the development of COVID-19 therapies.

For instance, Moderna — the small company in Massachusetts that is about to begin phase 3 clinical trials with its vaccine candidate — counts patent licenses from Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania in its intellectual property portfolio.

I was humbled when The Economist called Bayh-Dole “possibly the most inspired piece of legislation to be enacted in America over the past half-century. More than anything, this single policy measure helped to reverse America's precipitous slide into industrial irrelevance.”

Sen. Bayh and I partnered in a bipartisan manner to enact this important legislation, and I give him the majority of the credit for his vision and leadership. I am confident that he would join me in urging our present-day leaders to rise above partisan political bickering and work together to defeat this virus. Innovation will be the key, and I remain optimistic and proud that our legacy legislation may play a small role in a victory for millions and millions around the world.

Bob Dole is a former Republican presidential nominee and Senate majority leader who served in Congress for 35 years.