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As a regular skeptic, I often get involved in arguments about vaccines. In a recent discussion this came up:

The CDC owns 70 vaccine patents and makes billions of dollar off them

A quick google search showed many results affirming this statement, but none from the CDC.

Does the CDC own vaccine patents?

If yes, does it make "billions" of dollars from them?

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    You need to be very careful with the implications of this "fact", whether proven true or false. It would be ridiculous to imply that vaccines might not be all that they're cracked up to be because someone has a profit motive for selling them. Making profits off of sales is how you pay for additional R&D, like developing new vaccines. And that would be especially true of the CDC, which is a taxpayer-funded governmental organization facing significant budget cuts. Companies make billions in profits off of computers, too; should that imply they're secretly dangerous to us and we're being conned? – Cody Gray May 31 '17 at 6:06
  • @CodyGray I'd go further than that. The intention of the patent system itself is to allow businesses to recoup their R&D costs whilst also making their discovery available to the wider community - this is done using license fees. – Gusdor May 31 '17 at 12:29
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The Centers for Disease Control has applied for and been assigned patents for a number of vaccines. Vaccines are a great tool for controlling disease.

The CDC licenses out their patents. I cannot find any actual discussion of licensing fees, but the form that you have to fill out to get a license asks for a market analysis. Presumably, so this is so they know how much they can charge you.

They are not making billions from this. Their entire budget is around 7 billion page 13. This line item break down of the CDC budget lists one budget item in the billions, Vaccines for Children. This is a taxpayer funded program that provides vaccines to "children who might not otherwise be vaccinated because of inability to pay."

In 2016 the CDC made 137.8 million from royalty income. Their total royalty income is slightly less than 2% of their budget. Presumably some fraction of that comes from its patents on vaccines.

Summary: The CDC makes a small percentage of its budget from licensing vaccine patents that it owns.

  • Am I right to deduce from that budget breakdown that money from patent licensing comes under "User fees" category which is $2 million per year? – Dmitry Grigoryev May 30 '17 at 15:24
  • @DmitryGrigoryev I have no idea. I saw the same thing, but I also found other things that the CDC charges for. – BobTheAverage May 30 '17 at 15:36
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    Good answer, though, granted, if they are indeed making high tens/low hundreds of millions per year off of the licenses, then, over a few decades they could indeed be said to have made billions. But they don't make billions from them annually. Unfortunately, as with many such claims, the claim isn't specific as to whether they mean CDC makes that much per year or that they've made that much total. – reirab May 30 '17 at 21:35
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    @reirab to me "makes X dollars" means they are continuously earning that much (i.e. every year), while "has made X dollars" would be cumulative. Anything else would be intentionally misleading at best. – Kat May 31 '17 at 0:13
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    @Reirab You have a fair point. I saw a ton of different versions of this claim while doing my research. Most of them used the fact that the CDC makes money off vaccines to imply that they are totally corrupted by the evil vaccine industry. I wrote my answer to strongly imply that this was implausible. – BobTheAverage May 31 '17 at 15:45

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