The Gilded Age Bone Wars have their echoes in today's vaccine patent waiver fight

The same ideology of nationalism and property that spurred a paleontology fight fuels the vaccine patent war today

Published November 14, 2021 10:00AM (EST)

Diplodocus fossil, at the Natural History Museum, in Paris, Illustration from French newspaper Le Petit Parisien, May 10, 1908, Private Collection. (Leemage/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Diplodocus fossil, at the Natural History Museum, in Paris, Illustration from French newspaper Le Petit Parisien, May 10, 1908, Private Collection. (Leemage/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

One of the most obvious ways to hamstring the pandemic would be to distribute the COVID-19 vaccine globally, to every country in the world. Such a thing is certainly in the best interest of humanity at large for economic, humanitarian and self-preservation reasons. Yet the COVID-19 vaccines remain scarce in the poorest countries in the world; moreover, due to their proprietary nature, they cannot even be produced in many countries which often have the material capacity to do so.

This situation — the withholding of vaccines (both vaccines themselves and the intellectual property rights associated with them) and the widespread assumption that countries will be solely responsible for vaccinating their own populations — has been called "vaccine nationalism". And curiously, this isn't the first time in history that suffusing nationalism and the concept of property into science caused irreversible harm.

During the Gilded Age, ultra-rich robber barons like J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, George Peabody, and Andrew Carnegie, took an interest in philanthropic investments in the sciences. Much of their efforts were directed toward paleontology, especially the study of large charismatic dinosaurs and their relatives. Part of the draw of paleontology was convenience: dinosaur fossils and ore and oil were often found using similar techniques and in similar places.

It was not long before dinosaur fossils were symbols of national strength and economic power. (The nationalist current in paleontology may have been revived somewhat recently with the discovery of many evolutionarily interesting dinosaur fossils closely related to birds in China, which have turned it into the "epicenter of paleontology.") Indeed, the connections between paleontology, capitalism, and nationalism during the Gilded Age were explained most cogently in Lukas Rieppel's recent book Assembling the Dinosaur. And the competitive milieu of the Gilded Age was also on full display among the paleontologists themselves.

This culminated in a period of intense of fossil hunting and discovery from the 1870s to the 1890s known as the Bone Wars. The most marked dispute during this time was between Othniel Marsh, the first professor of paleontology in the United States (and, at times, vertebrate paleontologist for the US Geological Survey and president of the National Academy of Sciences) and Edward Cope, a man with little formal training in paleontology who was enabled by his family's great means. Both men started with vast resources: Marsh not only had his significant institutional connections but also had his research funded with a large inheritance from his uncle, George Peabody (among his other titles, Marsh was curator of the Peabody Museum of Natural Sciences at Yale); while Cope came from a well-off family and received much support from his father, Quaker philanthropist Alfred Cope.

These men engaged in intense competition for excavation sites. It was not only that they were scrambling for sites to discover new fossils — they were actively sabotaging each other's work. Marsh would plant fossils from other locations to confuse Cope. Marsh would also bribe owners of quarries to send him specimens from where Cope was fossil hunting before Cope got a chance to describe them. Often these men would finish excavating their sites only to use dynamite to destroy any remaining fossils lest the other man discover something that they missed. The competition was so fierce that Cope even purchased a fifty percent stake in a top scientific journal, The American Naturalist, to ensure that his work had a consistent outlet and flooded it with seventy-five of his own papers on fossil discoveries.

By the numbers, this resulted in the most intensely productive era of dinosaur fossil discoveries until this point, including Marsh's description of now well-known dinosaurs such as Apatosaurus, Stegosaurus, and Allosaurus at Como Bluff, Wyoming. When all was said and done, Marsh had "won" the Bone Wars in the sense that he had described eighty species of dinosaurs versus Cope's fifty-six; though this was largely due to the funding and staff Marsh had through his institutional connections. Marsh and Cope both argued that birds are the descendants of dinosaurs (an idea pushed earlier by Thomas Henry Huxley after the discovery of a nearly complete skeleton of Archaeopteryx, a birdlike dinosaur, by Richard Owen), which was informed by their work on these fossils and has been repeatedly validated and is to this day near-universally accepted by the paleontological community.

Despite high productivity in terms of the volume of fossils recovered and the number of species described, the intense competition and mutual sabotage between the two men is thought to have caused great damage to the field of paleontology, some of it irreversible. The legacy of this time was so damaging that the reputation of paleontology could only begin to recover when the emphasis in paleontology began to shift from fossil collection to patterns of evolution with the work of George Gaylord Simpson in the 1940s. Paleontology was subordinated to other fields related to evolution—it was excluded from John Maynard Smith's metaphorical "high table" of evolutionary biology until, arguably, the quantitative, theory-driven work of paleontologists like David Raup and Stephen Jay Gould in the 1970s and 1980s.

Their careless methods caused long-lasting damage in several more tangible ways. Their hastily-performed, poor reconstructions created misconceptions about dinosaurs which may have been compounded by the posturing of paleontology's benefactors, who liked to play up the ferocious aspects of dinosaur fossils to project strength on the international stage (for example, giving some dinosaurs a more erect posture and faster stride). These misconceptions persisted for decades even within the paleontology community and often still persist in the general public. Furthermore, the superficially high productivity of the two men caused the exodus of some doing more methodical work such as Joseph Leidy, discoverer of the first nearly complete dinosaur skeleton, who could not keep up with the volume of fossils described by the other men. Their destruction of fossils that could have otherwise been discovered later, which was driven by their sense of property over excavation sites, caused irreversible harm. There may be species of dinosaurs that will never be discovered by humanity because of the competition between these two men and the ownership over these sites which they felt entitled to.

If these men had decided to work together in a collaborative fashion with proper attribution of work (which is, fortunately, closer to the norm in sciences today) and less of a sense of property over their excavation sites, they may have discovered more fossils and made inferences and reconstructions that would have better stood the test of time. Their individualistic sense of competition and property may have set the field of paleontology back decades.

* * *

We are now in a new Gilded Age, and this new Gilded Age has a new Bones Wars—only this time, the bones are our own. Like the first one, this new era has ultra-rich philanthropists like Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, MacKenzie Scott, Michael Bloomberg, and Charles Schwab, who direct their philanthropic efforts towards the sciences. The particular scientific interests of these philanthropists, like public health, biotechnology, and climate change, however, have a much more direct material impact on our lives.

Much like the past, the terrain of the modern ultra-rich's philanthropy often conveniently aligns with their own financial interests. For example, Bill Gates has played a key role in steering the global vaccine effort toward redirecting a pittance of vaccines toward low-income countries as a part of the World Health Organization's severely underperforming public-private COVAX initiative, rather than suspending vaccine patents to facilitate these countries' ability to produce their own vaccines. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation even urged Oxford University, who housed the team that developed a COVID-19 vaccine, to break their pledge to grant their vaccine's rights to any manufacturer through open source licensing and instead partner with AstraZeneca and grant them sole rights to the vaccine.

As Microsoft's co-founder, Bill Gates's power and influence was built on the fidelity and enforcement of intellectual property law, such as the World Trade Organization's TRIPS agreement. These kinds of laws — which allowed Gates to enforce software licensing agreements and thus use Microsoft's software development to build his massive wealth and establish The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — also facilitate vaccine patents.

The coalition of corporate executives, politicians, and philanthropists who are in charge of vaccine distribution are simply not meeting the moment. The problem of vaccine distribution cannot be addressed adequately in the modern environment where proprietorship is so prominent. Under the current proprietary-vaccine framework, most of the world is not vaccinated; many countries, including most African countries, have percent-vaccinated numbers in the single digits.

Hence, the poorest countries are bearing the largest burden of vaccine nationalism. Worse, poorer countries often pay more per dose than richer countries. Much like the Bone Wars of the past in which excavation sites were destroyed so others could not use them, millions of vaccines are routinely destroyed under the current proprietary-vaccine framework while billions remain unvaccinated.

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We should completely reconsider the concept of private property; but, for now, global leadership can and should waive COVID-19 vaccine patents. Most of the world is in favor of vaccine patent waivers, but rich countries are either against it or spinning their wheels on the issue. Due to intellectual property claims on existing vaccines, factories all over the world that could be retrofitted to manufacture vaccines are not doing so.

In addition to the bottleneck on distribution that this is causing globally, the proprietary nature of these vaccines could also be hindering ongoing research, which is more important as the virus continues to evolve, resulting in new variants. Despite the enforcement of these patents and the ongoing embargo by the United States, Cuba has been able to develop a highly effective vaccine for COVID-19. If, for example, other countries could more easily access and use research on mRNA vaccine technology to build on it, we may be better positioned to develop new vaccines to keep up with the evolving virus—as evidenced by what other countries like Cuba have been able to do without access to this research.

This, the ever-evolving SARS-CoV-2 virus, needs to be a key consideration when thinking about the detrimental impact of the proprietary nature of COVID-19 vaccines. Allowing the virus to spread unabated sets the stage for the evolution of new variants by both increasing the number of replications, which provides more chances for the virus to mutate and thus create new variants, and increasing the population size of the virus, which allows for more effective selection for fitter variants. Indeed, these factors may have already resulted in the predominance of a more dangerous virus—the highly infectious delta variant was discovered in India prior to their more recent widespread vaccination initiatives (and the vast majority is still unvaccinated there).

For this reason, we need to prioritize a more global distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, one that can be better facilitated by patent waivers—as new variants are likely to arise from immunosuppressed people from anywhere in the world and vaccines administered in currently under-vaccinated countries will mitigate this risk. For this reason, it is even to the benefit of the most self-interested nations that the whole world is as vaccinated as possible.

The difference between the Bone Wars of the past and the new Bone Wars of vaccine propriety is that millions of people will get sick and die preventable deaths due to the lack of vaccine distribution equity. Short of non-pharmaceutical interventions such as strict shutdowns, quarantines, and enforcement of distancing (indeed, complete elimination of SARS-CoV-2 will be almost impossible without these interventions), the vaccines are among the most effective potential means for mitigating the harm caused by the pandemic and stymying the evolution of more harmful variants. It was unfortunate that paleontology was set back by nationalism and the proprietary tendencies of capitalism, but now, the stakes are much higher—these same ideologies are now killing millions of people worldwide through the way they are shaping our response to the pandemic. We need to approach this pandemic from a new international, non-proprietary framework. The dinosaurs are already dead—we aren't dead, yet.

By Logan W. Cole

Logan W. Cole is an evolutionary biologist in Batavia, NY. He holds a PhD in evolution, ecology, and behavior from Indiana University in Bloomington, IN and has conducted research, taught, and written on evolution, genomics, and science education.

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Bone Wars Commentary Paleontology Pandemic Science Vaccine Patents Vaccines