29 years without Jonas Salk: against the normalization of the absurd

Nearly three decades after Jonas Salk’s passing, his legacy continues to highlight the need for building a different pharmaceutical industry

June 21, 2024 by Alan Rossi Silva, Joost Smiers
Source: Wikimedia Commons

“The people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” This was Jonas Salk’s reaction during a 1955 interview when Edward R. Murrow asked him about the ownership of the patent for the newly invented polio vaccine. Almost 70 years later, in 2024, this response continues to surprise new generations and inspire change.

The interviewer’s question is also striking: “Who owns the patent on this vaccine?” Murrow did not ask whether anyone would hold a patent on this invention. The way this question is framed conveys an undeniable air of naturalness. It is based on what the interviewer perceived was a logical assumption: “If there is a potentially profitable invention, then of course someone already holds exclusive rights to it.”

Watching the recording of the interview, it is clear that Jonas Salk disagrees with this logic. Various people might detect traces of indignation, surprise, and even irony in his brief statement. His memorable response is, in fact, a curious blend of these emotions. Nevertheless, it also reflects other sentiments that can be particularly useful in addressing our current challenges. To this day, Salk’s stance impresses with its courage, selflessness, and spontaneity.

Especially relevant is Jonas Salk’s ability to recognize the absurd. Despite the supposed naturalness of Murrow’s question, Salk is not fooled and, disconcertingly, points out the impropriety of the question. After all, how could anyone think of limiting the production and access to a technology capable of saving millions of lives?

It is precisely for this reason that Jonas Salk continues to inspire an infinite number of people and initiatives around the world, including the ongoing work of his own institute in the United States, several books, and awards. Moreover, he has also been one of the main inspirations for the Public Pharma for Europe movement, giving his name to one of its most promising proposals: the European Salk Institute, envisioned by the Belgian organization Medics for the People and supported by numerous organizations worldwide.

Read more: Public pharma infrastructure could give the world access to a treasure trove of medicines

More than publishing op-eds and naming institutes after him, however, the only way to truly honor the legacy of Jonas Salk is by denouncing the intrinsic immorality of the patent system and adopting an uncompromising stance towards justice.

Jonas Salk’s memory is especially relevant in current times when we seem to be trapped by a tragic mixture of false pragmatism, despair, and lack of imagination. With few exceptions (e.g., here and here), and without really breaking away from the core of Murrow’s logic, the vision of our youth, social movements, and academics seems to be limited to “balancing” patent systems, reforming patent laws, “negotiating” voluntary licenses, implementing TRIPS flexibilities, begging for temporary IP waivers, emphasizing the need of defensive patents, and even advocating for increasing the number of patents originating in the Global South.

We can aim for much more: it is important to remember that not everything is lost, and the flame of indignation is still alive. Following Salk’s example and challenging the deadly neoliberal consensus, Radder and Smiers, for example, propose a concrete alternative: medical research without patents. Their model is shown to be scientifically, socially, and morally preferable. It is also economically and financially profitable, and socio-politically and organizationally practicable. Their perspective provides a beacon of hope, demonstrating that with bold ideas and collective effort, we can reshape our future!

As we approach the 29th anniversary of Jonas Salk’s death on June 23, we must unequivocally reject the notion that life-saving medical innovations can be commodified and confined by patents. By embracing Salk’s vision, we can strive towards a world where scientific breakthroughs serve humanity as a whole, not the profits of a few. It is time to challenge and transform the status quo, ensuring that the next generation looks back at our era and sees the courage to end this absurdity.

Alan Rossi Silva holds a PhD in Law and is a project coordinator at the People’s Health Movement.

Joost Smiers is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the Utrecht University of the Arts. More information about his work is available at: https://joostsmiers-dissenting.nl/joost-smiers/in-english/.

People’s Health Dispatch is a fortnightly bulletin published by the People’s Health Movement and Peoples Dispatch. For more articles and subscription to People’s Health Dispatch, click here. This article was co-published with Outra Saúde and can be found in Portuguese here.