There was finally some good news this month on the pandemic front: two experimental mRNA vaccines have proven to be over 90% effective, and once they get marketing approval, doses may become available for distribution as early as the end of this year.
And while this is certainly good news for some, it is not good news for everyone. If you live in the United States, there may be reason to believe that the dark days of COVID are soon over. But if you live in Burkina Faso, this pandemic will not end soon.
As a business journalist covering the pharmaceutical industry, I see over the last year up close how Big Pharma has responded to the pandemic. At the beginning of the crisis, my cynicism was replaced with cautious optimism as I saw the industry respond quickly to the all-on-one tire call to find a vaccine. When these vaccines are closer to the finish line, I am once again afraid that how we choose to increase production ̵
To begin with, many vaccine doses have already been anticipated for rich countries. The Trump administration awarded Moderna and Pfizer billions in return for 100 million doses of their vaccine.
Similarly, human rights groups have reported that 82% of Pfizer’s vaccine supply has already been purchased by a handful of rich countries representing 14% of the global population; for Moderna, 78% of the doses are pre-purchased for 12% of the population.
Just last week, the European Commission approved a fourth contract with Pfizer and BioNTech for 200 million doses of their vaccine with the option of adding another 100 million doses. However, the Commission was very keen to emphasize that they are committed to guaranteeing global fair access and that Member States are free to donate any of their doses. if they want.
The “if they will” line is sophisticated, as there have been several opportunities for governments and pharmaceutical companies to show that they are committed to ensuring that everyone, no matter where they live in the world, has equal access to the vaccine.
It is widely acknowledged that no pharmaceutical company has the capacity to supply a vaccine worldwide. Every single pharmaceutical company needs help. This means that if governments were serious about reaching out to everyone on the planet, they could force pharmaceutical companies receiving these billion-dollar contracts to renounce all patent rights. Not only has this not happened, but pharmaceutical companies are pulling all the stops to make sure it does not.
Last month, India and South Africa went to the World Trade Organization (WTO) to ask for the waiver of all intellectual property rights to COVID-19 vaccines, technologies and therapies. A handful of rich countries, including the US, EU, Canada, Japan and the UK (oddly enough the same countries that bought 82% of the Pfizer vaccine) rejected the proposal, saying poor countries should issue mandatory licenses instead.
A compulsory license is when a country obliges a patent owner to relinquish their rights in return for compensation later. The representative of South Africa told the assembly of rich nations in the WTO that this approach is not possible in the current pandemic, because taking “product by product” would take too long and many countries do not have laws on the books that allow it them to still require a mandatory license. The rich countries were not convinced by these arguments.
Developing countries could have circumvented mandatory licenses if pharmaceutical companies had initially decided to donate their patents. Back in March, the WHO launched the COVID-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP), which includes the Open Covid Pledge, where companies can donate their patents, technology and know-how to help fight the pandemic. So far, only 40 countries have approved C-TAP, and those countries that have pledged nearly $ 16 billion in recovery efforts have been reluctant to make intellectual property rights sharing a condition of receiving public money.
As of the publication, no pharmaceutical company developing a COVID-19 vaccine has voluntarily contributed to Open Covid Pledge. This includes not only the patents for the vaccines, but also all the supporting technology around the delivery of the vaccines.
Moderna is so far unusual in the COVID vaccine race because they have said they will waive all patent rights during the pandemic. This is good news and should be celebrated, but it should also be noted that some of Moderna’s patents are not valid, so enforcing these rights against generic companies wishing to reproduce the vaccine may not be the best legal strategy anyway. Other vaccine developers such as Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca have not followed suit.
But while rich countries and pharmaceutical companies insist on not renouncing patent rights, there are other mechanisms in place that they can use to gain wider access. The Medicines Patent Pool (MPP) was set up to tackle the HIV pandemic by asking pharmaceutical companies to contribute their antiviral drugs to the pool in exchange for a license from a generic drug manufacturer. To be clear, pharmaceutical companies are still making money on this deal. Pharmaceutical companies continue to sell their new drugs to rich countries at high cost and contribute their older versions to the patent pool. These drugs are then licensed to a generic manufacturer on another side of the planet that manufactures antiviral drugs at a reduced price for poor countries. This has been a resounding success in the treatment of HIV.
In March, the MPP expanded its mandate to include COVID-19 therapies for low-income and middle-income countries. One of the earliest approved therapies was Gilead remdesivir, an antiviral treatment that has been shown to shorten the hospitalization of patients with severe symptoms. But instead of granting a voluntary license with the MPP – which would have reduced shortages and lowered prices – Gilead decided to set a high global price of $ 390 per tonne. One-time treatment vial ($ 520 for US). The cost of making a single vial is estimated to be less than a dollar. In particular, Gilead received over $ 70 million in U.S. taxpayer money to investigate the antiviral in the first place.
The most frustrating thing about vaccine distribution is that this impending moral catastrophe could have been avoided. As the pandemic exploded around the world, there was enormous support for having a “People’s Vaccine” that would be publicly funded and accessible to all.
The publicly funded part became a reality. Pharmaceutical companies have received billions of dollars to test these vaccines in hopes of earning even more billions of dollars in return. If patents are broken and generic manufacturers can produce vaccines on demand, Big Pharma companies will lose profits. The governments and healthcare agencies (look at you, Bill and the Melinda Gates Foundation) that bankrolled these billion-dollar pharmaceutical companies had a choice. They could have clearly and transparently stated in their contracts with these pharmaceutical companies that all patents for COVID-19 must be publicly owned and accessible to all. They could have – they just chose not to do it.