Owning the Sun: A People’s History of Monopoly Medicine from Aspirin to COVID-19 Vaccines

Counterpoint. Mar. 2022. 288p. ISBN 9781640095069. $26. SCI
Zaitchik’s (The Gilded Rage; Common Nonsense) creative title for this book refers to Jonas Salk’s response when he was asked whether he would seek a patent for his polio vaccine—this he compared to patenting the sun. The wide-ranging history of the patent and intellectual property system included in the book illustrates that Salk’s view was and is very much in the minority. Zaitchik begins with the origins of patents in the reign of Elizabeth I, moves through the founding of the U.S. Patent Office, and then trains his focus on the transformation of “patent medicine” from a racket for con men and hustlers to the billion-dollar industry that exists today. The final chapters of the book revolve around the wrangling, negotiations, and power plays present throughout the development of COVID vaccines that ultimately influenced the ability to produce and distribute them.
VERDICT Part history lesson on intellectual property and part damning critique of the private interests that blocked an attempt to subject COVID vaccines to IP restrictions, Zaitchik’s book is highly informative and deeply troubling reading. It will appeal to readers concerned with equitable access to medicine and responsible corporate governance.
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