CDC vaccine patents – Robert F Kennedy Jr gets this one wrong too

There are some very elaborate conspiracy theories set up by the anti-vaccine tinfoil hat crowd, but I ran across a new one that use such a tortured path of logical fallacies and outright misunderstandings that I just had to review it. The claim is that the CDC vaccine patents are so valuable that the CDC itself sets aside all morality and ethics to endorse these vaccines to make more money for the CDC.

This particular conspiracy theory arises from none other than Robert F Kennedy, Jr, one of Donald Trump’s lapdogs for vaccines. Kennedy has made this claim for several years now, but repeated it in a recent interview, stating that, “the CDC is a subsidiary of the pharmaceutical industry. The agency owns more than 20 vaccine patents and purchases and sells $4.1 billion in vaccines annually.” Typically, Kennedy provides absolutely nothing in the form of supporting evidence. It makes no sense to argue against an imaginary claim – this is a pretty good example of an opinion rather than facts.

But here comes Ginger Taylor, one of the most ardent and science-ignoring anti-vaccine activists around these parts. In fact, she inspired my article entitled, Vaccines and autism science says they are unrelatedTaylor, who apparently has an autistic child, believes that vaccines “damaged” her child because, as a mother, she knows more than science. She considers science to be an elitist pursuit, it’s not data and evidence that matter but her opinion. Seriously, she has an utter lack of self-awareness, which apparently broke one of Orac’s favorite Big Pharma Irony Meters™. Her opinion of her own scientific knowledge is betrayed by the reality of her science knowledge.

So this same Ginger Taylor, vaccine denying silly person, decides to write an article with another torturous description of the CDC vaccine patents conspiracy theory, trying to support Kennedy’s outlandish claims. And she wrote this article in GreenMedInfo, one of the most ignorant anti-science websites on the inter webs, just a bit below NaturalNews in quality.

The problems with Taylor’s article are multi-fold – but generally, like so many  anti-vaccine types, they think they know a lot about a topic based on their 15 minutes of Google search time. But because Taylor is utterly uneducated and inexperienced with patents, she gets nearly all of her conspiracy theory wrong. Like almost all conspiracies.

So here we go, debunking another anti-vaccine myth.

Let’s talk about patents

I’m going to try to synthesize what you should know about patents into a few sentences. This does not make me or you a world expert on patent law, but it should be at the level that all researchers in the USA would basically understand.

A patent is considered intellectual property, that is, an idea (say new technology) can be considered property no different than real estate or a car. Because we can’t feel or see ideas, before they’re manufactured,  sovereign states, such as the USA, grants an inventor or owner of that intellectual property a set of exclusive rights for a limited period of time. In exchange, the inventor must provide a detailed public disclosure of his or her intellectual property.

Patents describe, in detail, all aspects of the intellectual product. They list out claims (in numerical order) that the inventor thinks are critical and unique features of the invention. The patent also describes related patents, which may or may not be crucial to the one being proposed.

A patent can be on a product, but it also could be a process that makes a product. In other words, you could patent a technique to manufacture a product that is unique from other processes. Finally, you can patent a design, which may not make a product appear different, though functionally similar to others.

Patents are not a license to manufacture

One thing that Ginger Taylor gets wrong (amongst many) about patents is that they are not a license to manufacture something. Let’s leave vaccines for a bit and take a look at your iPhone (or Android, just to save the comments from arguments). Apple has over 1300 patents that cover the iPhone (pdf) – there isn’t one patent that rules them all for Apple to manufacture the iPhone. Each patent protects a small part of the phone – cameras, the phone itself, the screen, touch technology – way too many to list.

Moreover, Apple licenses patents from numerous companies that are necessary to manufacture the iPhone – just to make this weirder, Apple licenses technology from competitors (and they license it from Apple). In other words, Apple pays other companies a percentage of the sales price of the iPhone (called royalties) so that they can use the technology.

That’s why a patent does not confer to the buyer or licensor of that patent rights to manufacture anything. They need to acquire or license every single patent that might conceivably be needed to manufacture an iPhone or a vaccine.

Furthermore, patents themselves do not necessarily work. One does not show up at the patent office with a vial of vaccine and say “this works.” Only the FDA can answer that question, something that continues to baffle me. A patent application, at least these days, are words generally written by an attorney, sent to the Patent Office for review. It describes how the patent could work, with drawings and other backup information. So even if you find a patent on something, it does not imply that it works. I’m guessing that of those 1300 patents that cover the iPhone, a number of them are for non-working inventions, but one claim of that invention may be necessary to protect the iPhone’s overall intellectual property.

I’m trying to oversimplify the patent process, but it’s almost impossible to describe adequately all the aspects of patenting complex technology. There isn’t a book in the the iPhone package that tells you every single patent that covers it. They generally only list the 4 or 5 broad patents on the phone, without giving away the 1300 patents. In general a patent attorney (which, to remind the reader, Ginger Taylor is not), would have to look through each patent, then try to find the associated patents. This can take years, and be the basis of lots of litigation.

Patents on vaccines

With regards to patents on vaccines, in general, there is never one patent for that vaccine. One vaccine may rely on a hundred other patents, some owned by the manufacturer, and some licensed from individuals and groups, such as the CDC vaccine patents. Think about it – one vaccine may have patents for the antigen, the adjuvant, the buffer, the delivery method, the manufacturing processes, and literally a hundred other bits that are required to bring that vaccine to the market. Let’s say there’s 100 patents that cover the manufacturing of Gardasil. None of those patents alone would allow the manufacturer to sell Gardasil – it can only be manufactured, generally free of patent lawsuits, if all of the various patents are acquired or licensed. And even then, it’s not a guarantee, some competitor might find some small thing that violates its own patents.

Moreover, and this is a key point, someone who wanted to make a competitive product would need to get “around,” or avoid conflicting, with any of those 100 patents. That’s going to be hard.

OK, I just gave you a 10 minute review of patents. A real patent attorney spends 3 years in law school and several years as an associate to actually deal with patents. I know about patents because I worked in research and development, but we always had lawyers who watched our backs. We’d develop some cool gizmo to make something work better, and one of our company’s depressing attorneys will tell us, “that violates patent 00001 from Company XYZ,” who is our largest competitor.

One time, we invented a unique way to do a cardiovascular technique, and the underlying patent, we discovered, was owned by one of the Big Beverage companies. They licensed the patent to us for cheap (considering it was very important), because they simply made more money on sugared brown water than they would from a medical company. Actually, they were kind of wrong on that point, but we weren’t going to negotiate against ourselves.

And stuff like this happens 200 times a day with developing anything from an iPhone to a new vaccine. It’s never that simple.

The CDC vaccine patents

Yes, the CDC vaccine patents are a large portfolio of intellectual property on various aspects of vaccines, because the CDC does a boatload of research on infectious disease, which leads to vaccines. Eventually, they invent something, maybe finding the exact antigen on a virus that induces an immune response, and patent attorneys at the CDC file a patent on that “invention.” It protects the CDC from corporations or individuals who would rely upon CDC inventions, then patent it for themselves. So, the CDC (or any federal science agency, like the NIH, US Geological Survey, or whomever) has a portfolio of patents it can license to anyone who wants to pay for them.

Now the CDC does not license the patents themselves. The patents are licensed to outside entities by the National Institutes of Health Office of Technology Transfer (OTT), which is responsible for licensing all of the patents generated from the Department of Health and Human Services. So, even at this point, the CDC really isn’t responsible for selling the patents and receiving the royalties, but that’s probably not an important issue with regards to Ginger Taylor’s convoluted conspiracy theory.

So, in the immortal words of somebody, “follow the money.” We shall do that, but be prepared to be shocked and dismayed at what I found. And by “shocked and dismayed,” I really mean “yawned loudly.” As opposed to Ms. Taylor’s wide-eyed reporting of some nonexistent conspiracy, I actually looked up the numbers. Took a little work, but I got there.

The CDC lists out all of the technology it has available to be licensed – that’s about 37 patents, which have some reasonable tie to vaccines or the vaccination process. Now, Ginger Taylor claims that there 57 patents from the CDC for vaccines, but that ignores the process of licensing. Some patents, as I’ve mentioned above, don’t stand alone, and have little value. She went about it like a typical Google University student, pretending to know more than she really does.

Looking through the technology that the CDC has, none of it will give you a right to manufacture the vaccine, again, as we mentioned above.  I suppose this feathery dinosaur could license one of the CDC vaccine patents, open a manufacturing facility in his garage, and begin selling a Streptococcus A vaccine. Unfortunately, that same feathery dinosaur would need literally dozens of other patents that would need to be licensed – from manufacturing technology, to any unique ingredients, to just about everything else. At this point, I’d need to get some more gold bars to even begin manufacturing. And remember, even if I get all of those patents, the FDA still needs to approve my new Strep A vaccine.

You see, it’s more than that one patent from the CDC. It’s a huge process, and the cranky old dinosaur just doesn’t have the energy, money, or determination to bring out that vaccine.

But there’s more.

CDC vaccine patents and money

The OTT reported in 2014 (pdf) that they had earned royalties of about $138 million across all of the licensed technology from NIH. Remember, CDC technology is only a tiny part of the overall NIH licensing activities. Of that $138 million, 84%, or $116 million, resulted from OTT’s top 20 technologies.

But here’s where it gets interesting, only one of those top 20 technologies was CDC related – immunoreactive peptides for use in an HPV vaccine. Not the vaccine mind you, but just the parts of the proteins that would induce an immune response. Because of nondisclosure agreements, it is difficult to tease out the data of how much of that $116 million was associated with the CDC’s technology. But if we just make all top 20 products equal in value (and the OTT report made it clear one product got the bulk of that money, so this is a really high estimate), the CDC got $5.8 million for the HPV technology.

According to the rules of Federal Government, almost all of the royalties are plowed back into basic scientific research. And if you’re thinking, which I know the anti-vaccine types will be, that the CDC will prostitute itself for $5.8 million, well that kind of ignores a basic bit of information.

The CDC budget is over $7 billion (pdf), so this royalty makes up less than the 0.1% of the total CDC budget. Since people usually attribute ethics to others that they do to themselves, maybe Ginger Taylor will sell her intellectual ethics for $5.8 million, but what makes anyone think that the dedicated public servants at the CDC would? Moreover, there is little financial gain for an individual, just for basic scientific research to save human lives.

This is so frustrating. Ginger Taylor wants to convince us that the CDC pushes vaccines just to earn a measly $5.8 million dollars, basically rounding error in the accounting for a huge federal agency like the CDC. I imagine all the labs at the CDC throw away $5.8 million in micropipette tips every year. And I’m not joking.

Ginger has so crammed her brain with hatred of vaccines, she’s not even thinking clearly. She thinks everyone has her ethics, you know, don’t vaccinate children because she believes she knows more than really educated and trained scientists.

She wants us to believe that every CDC scientist sits in their gold plated office dreaming of ways to make another $1.25 from vaccines by pushing these “dangerous” vaccines on the American public. In her simple mind, she wants to make it appear that vaccines serve no public good, so of course the CDC wants to make money harming Americans.

Taylor wraps up her online crusade with:

This brief look at current patents held by the CDC deserves an in-depth review to determine exactly what current financial relationships with vaccine makers now exist and  what the current impact those revenue streams are likely having on vaccine safety positions.  Furthermore, one must closely look at the financial relationships between the CDC and vaccine makers it is currently courting, to include the potential exploitation of new patents for financial gain. These are merely a few  lines of inquiry, among hundreds, needing to be examined and why the potential RFK commission on vaccine safety must be impaneled.

Well, I did. And she’s laughably off-base on her accusations. The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), whose “debates” are public record, never sit around trying to maximize the value of the patents, because the value isn’t that high (which troubles me about the OTT’s efforts, but that’s another story for another time). The ACIP recommended Gardasil, not because the CDC would get 0.1% more money to pay for those micropipette tips or broken beakers or whatever stuff they use, but because Gardasil prevents HPV-related cancers and is extremely safe.

The TL;DR version

I just don’t get anti-science people like Ginger Taylor. She doesn’t understand that people working at the CDC do so mostly out of an obligation to humanity, something that’s far outside of her ability to comprehend. These CDC researchers are first responders to epidemics world wide. The put themselves in harm’s way, not for another box of micropipette tips – no, they do it for altruism and caring about mankind.

Let’s review where she’s wrong:

  1. It’s almost impossible for one patent to give all the intellectual property to manufacture one vaccine. You need dozens of patents.
  2. A patent does not give you the right to manufacture a vaccine.
  3. The CDC’s patents bring in less than 0.1% of their budget. That does not qualify as a financial partnership with anyone, including Big Pharma.
  4. The CDC is made up of dedicated public servants. If you’re going to denigrate them, bring evidence Ms. Taylor. And it better be some good stuff, not your crackpot conspiracy theories.

Whatever money the CDC gets from vaccine licenses is not used to line the hallways of the CDC with gold bars. It’s used to perform more research in more areas of diseases that kill too many people. Maybe that damn micropipette tip will be used to discover a novel treatment for heart disease, or prevent Zika, or, if I could only hope, reduce gun related deaths in this country. Ginger Taylor wants to see conspiracy theories where there are none.

But as the loquacious Orac said in his article about her,

It took all my self-control not to collapse on the floor in a gibbering, hysterically laughing mass upon reading Ginger’s comment. I was, however, unable to keep at least a little giggle from escaping.

I also laughed hysterically about Ginger’s latest conspiracy theory. But then I got mad – but I promise I did giggle at first.

Now, go buy a couple of boxes of micropipettes for the researchers at the CDC, so they don’t have to push vaccines and the CDC vaccine patents. Oh wait. They’ll just use those things to help discover another vaccine to save human lives.

Editor’s note – this article was updated to improve formatting, clarity, and information. Also, broken links were fixed.

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The Original Skeptical Raptor
Chief Executive Officer at SkepticalRaptor
Lifetime lover of science, especially biomedical research. Spent years in academics, business development, research, and traveling the world shilling for Big Pharma. I love sports, mostly college basketball and football, hockey, and baseball. I enjoy great food and intelligent conversation. And a delicious morning coffee!