Finally, there was some good news this month on the pandemic front: two experimental mRNA vaccines proved to be more than 90% effective, and once authorized, the doses could become available later this year.
And while that’s certainly good news for some, it’s not good for everyone. If you live in the United States, there may be reason to believe that the dark days of COVID will soon be over. But if you live in Burkina Faso, this pandemic will not end soon.
As a business journalist covering the pharmaceutical industry, I have taken a closer look over the past year at how Big Pharma responded to the pandemic. At the start of the crisis, my cynicism was replaced by cautious optimism as I watched the industry respond quickly to the call for a vaccine. Now that these vaccines are nearing the finish line, I fear again that the way we decide to increase production ̵
For starters, many doses of vaccines are already pre-established in rich countries. The Trump administration has awarded Moderna and Pfizer billion-dollar contracts in exchange for 100 million doses of their vaccine.
Similarly, human rights groups report that 82% of Pfizer’s vaccine supplies have already been purchased by a handful of rich countries, representing 14% of the world’s population; for Moderna 78% of the doses were pre-purchased for 12% of the population.
Last week alone, the European Commission approved a fourth contract with Pfizer and BioNTech for 200 million doses of their vaccine, with the possibility of adding an additional 100 million doses. However, the Commission is keen to emphasize that they are committed to ensuring fair global access and that Member States are free to donate every dose if they want.
The “if they want” line is sophistry, as governments and pharmaceutical companies have had many opportunities 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 the whole world with a vaccine. Every pharmaceutical company will need help. This means that if governments are serious about everyone on the planet, they can force pharmaceutical companies receiving these billion-dollar contracts to give up all patent rights. Not only did this not happen, but the pharmaceutical companies removed all the stops to make sure there weren’t.
Last month, India and South Africa appealed to the World Trade Organization (WTO) to waive all intellectual property rights to COVID-19 vaccines, technologies and therapies. A handful of rich countries, including the United States, the European Union, Canada, Japan and the United Kingdom (strangely, the same countries that bought 82% of the Pfizer vaccine) rejected the offer and said poorer countries should issue mandatory licenses instead.
A compulsory license is when a state obliges the patent holder to waive his rights in return for compensation. The representative of South Africa told the WTO summit that this approach is not feasible in the current pandemic, as switching from “product to product” will take too long and many countries do not have book laws that would require mandatory license anyway. Rich countries were not convinced by these arguments.
Developing countries could circumvent mandatory licenses if pharmaceutical companies had first decided to donate their patents. As early as March, the WHO launched the COVID-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP), which includes Open Covid Pledge, through which companies can donate their patents, technologies and know-how to combat the pandemic. So far, only 40 countries have approved C-TAP, and countries that have pledged nearly $ 16 billion in their recovery efforts are reluctant to make the sharing of intellectual property rights a condition for receiving public money.
At the time of publication, no pharmaceutical company developing a vaccine against COVID-19 had voluntarily participated in the Open Covid Pledge. This includes not only vaccine patents, but also all the supporting technology around vaccine delivery.
For now, Moderna is exceptional in the COVID vaccine race, as they have said they will relinquish 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 that want to reproduce the vaccine may not be the best. a good legal strategy anyway. Other vaccine developers such as Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca have not followed suit.
But even if rich countries and pharmaceutical companies insist on not giving up patent rights, there are other mechanisms they could use to help achieve wider access. The Drug Patent Fund (MPP) was created to tackle the HIV pandemic by asking pharmaceutical companies to bring their antivirals into the group in exchange for a license from a generic drug manufacturer. To be clear, pharmaceutical companies are still making money from this deal. Pharmaceutical companies continue to sell their new drugs to rich countries at high cost and contribute to their older versions in the patent fund. These drugs are then authorized by a generic drug manufacturer on the other side of the planet, which produces antiviral drugs at a reduced price for poor countries. This is a huge success for the treatment of HIV.
In March, MPP expanded its mandate to include COVID-19 therapies for low- and middle-income countries. One of the earliest approved therapies is remilezivir by Gilead, an antiviral treatment that has been shown to reduce the hospitalization of patients with severe symptoms. But instead of making a voluntary license with MPP – which would reduce shortages and lower prices – Gilead decided to set a high global price of $ 390 for a one-day treatment vial ($ 520 for the US). The cost of producing one vial is estimated at less than one dollar. Notably, Gilead has received more than $ 70 million in taxpayers’ money to investigate the antivirus program.
The most frustrating thing about the spread of vaccines is that this impending moral catastrophe could have been avoided. When the pandemic broke out around the world, there was huge support for the creation of a “People’s Vaccine” that would be publicly funded and accessible to all.
The publicly funded part came true. Pharmaceutical companies have received billions of dollars to test these vaccines in hopes of making even more billions of dollars in return. If patents are infringed and generic drug manufacturers can produce vaccines at will, large pharmaceutical companies lose profits. The governments and health authorities (looking at you, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) that have funded these pharmaceutical companies with billions of dollars have had a choice. They could provide clearly and transparently 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.