[Ip-health] Want Vaccines Fast? Suspend Intellectual Property Rights

K.M. Gopakumar kumargopakm at gmail.com
Mon Dec 7 03:15:41 PST 2020

Want Vaccines Fast? Suspend Intellectual Property

Otherwise, there won’t be enough shots to go around, even in rich countries.

By Achal Prabhala, Arjun Jayadev, and Dean Baker

Mr. Prabhala is a public health activist. Mr. Jayadev and Mr. Baker are

   - Dec. 7, 2020, 5:01 a.m. E

As some reports would have it, this is the beginning of the end
have posted excellent results, with more expected to come.

But this is not the beginning of the end; it is only the beginning of an
endless wait: There aren’t enough vaccines to go around in the richest
countries on earth, let alone the poorest ones.

That’s why it makes little sense that the United States, Britain and the
European Union, among others, are blocking a proposal at the World Trade
Organization that would allow them, and the rest of the world, to get more
of the vaccines and treatments we all need.

The proposal
put forward by India and South Africa in October, calls on the W.T.O. to
exempt member countries from enforcing some patents, trade secrets or
pharmaceutical monopolies under the organization’s agreement on
trade-related intellectual property rights, known as TRIPs

It cites the “exceptional circumstances” created by the pandemic and argues
that intellectual property protections are currently “hindering or
potentially hindering timely provisioning of affordable medical products”;
the waiver would allow W.T.O. member countries to change their laws so that
companies there could produce generic versions of any coronavirus vaccines
and Covid-19 treatments.

The idea was immediately opposed
by the United States, the European Union, Britain, Norway, Switzerland,
Japan, Canada, Australia, and Brazil. It was opposed again at another
in November, and again last week

By our count, nearly 100 countries favor the proposal, and yet because almost
all decisions at the W.T.O. are made by consensus
<https://www.wto.org/english/thewto_e/whatis_e/tif_e/org1_e.htm>, a small
number of countries can thwart the will of the majority, even a super
majority. (The organization has 164 members.)

The U.S. trade representative is reported to have said
that protecting intellectual property rights and otherwise “facilitating
incentives for innovation and competition” was the best way to ensure the
“swift delivery” of any vaccines and treatments. The European Union has
argued <https://www.keionline.org/34275> that there was “no indication that
intellectual property rights issues have been a genuine barrier in relation
to Covid-19-related medicines and technologies.” The British mission to the
W.T.O. agrees, characterizing the waiver proposal as  “an extreme measure
to address an unproven problem

In fact, the novel technology at the heart of the Moderna vaccine, for
example, was
partly by the National Institutes of Health using U.S. federal funds.
Moderna then received a total of some $2.5 billion in taxpayer money
for research support and as preorders for vaccines; by the company’s own
the $1 billion contribution it received for research covered 100 percent of
those costs.

Moderna has pledged <https://investors.modernatx.com/node/10066/pdf> not to
enforce its “Covid-19 related patents against those making vaccines
intended to combat the pandemic.” But as Doctors Without Borders has
pointed out
that offer is less generous than it seems since other types of intellectual
property, such as know-how or trade secrets, typically are needed to
develop and produce vaccines.

Pfizer, for its part
received a $455 million grant from the German government to develop its
vaccine, and then, by our count, nearly $6 billion in purchase commitments
from the United States and the European Union.

AstraZeneca benefited from some public funding while it was developing its
vaccine, and received a total of more than $2 billion from the United States
and the European Union
for both research and in purchase commitments. It also signed a deal worth
$750 million
to supply the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and Gavi, the
Vaccine Alliance with a total of 300 million doses

In other words, the vaccines developed by these companies were developed
thanks wholly or partly to taxpayer money. Those vaccines essentially
belong to the people — and yet the people are about to pay for them again,
and with little prospect of getting as many as they need fast enough.

We calculate, based on Pfizer’s and Moderna’s stated vaccine-production
capacity and their supply deal with the United States and the European
Union, as well as
and Canada
that these countries can expect, at best, to have about 50 percent of their
populations covered by the end of 2021. Considering that 82 percent of the
Pfizer says it can produce through next year and 78 percent of Moderna’s
have already been sold to rich countries, according to the advocacy group
Global Justice Now, imagine the likely shortages and delays for the rest of
the world. (Canada is said to have placed so many preorders that it could
end up with 10 doses per capita

AstraZeneca, to its credit, has struck deals with manufacturers in India
and Latin
as well as with Gavi
to help poor countries get access to its vaccine
(It has also committed not to make a profit
from its vaccine during the pandemic — though, according to a Financial
Times report based on company documents
AstraZeneca has retained the right to declare the end of the pandemic as
early as July 2021.) That said, the company estimates that it will be able
to make three billion doses by the end of 2021; that’s enough for only 20
percent of the world’s population.

Poor countries have faced such problems before. The W.T.O.’s creation in
1995 coincided with a surge of H.I.V./AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa
<https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp048156>. By 1996, new treatments
<https://academic.oup.com/jac/article/54/1/10/746768> were developed that
made AIDS a mostly manageable condition — though only for people who could
afford them. Nongeneric drugs cost about $10,000 a year
at the turn of the century, and were well out of the reach of many people
in, say, South Africa <https://msfaccess.org/worldwide-revolt-access>. It took
the South African government almost a decade
to break the monopolies held by foreign drug companies that kept the
country hostage, and kept people there dying.

In Brazil, Gilead Sciences, the monopoly owner of sofosbuvir, a
breakthrough treatment for hepatitis C, has been in a deadlock with the
over expanding and cheapening access to the drug for Brazilians. By several
when Gilead Sciences obtained patents for sofosbuvir in early 2019, it
hiked the price for Brazilian public agencies from $16 to $240 a capsule
Yet that would drop to about $8 if the drug were produced locally under a
compulsory licensing scheme
<https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2893582/> that the TRIPs
agreement already allows in some circumstances.

Countries in which drugs are relatively cheap, such as India, face another
kind of challenge: attempts to overturn the laws that make those drugs
accessible there. Novartis, the Swiss pharmaceutical giant, fought a
decade-long battle to secure monopoly control
in India over its treatment for leukemia, and in the process tried to have a
key provision of Indian patent law struck down
<https://www.escr-net.org/caselaw/2020/novartis-ag-v-union-india-2007> as
unconstitutional. (It failed on both fronts.)

What’s more, the crisis of access to affordable medicines also affects
countries whose governments defend extensive intellectual property
protections for companies: Insulin
for example, can be punishingly expensive in the United States.

<https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/29/health/covid-remdesivir-gilead.html>, a
drug used to treat Covid-19 (with mixed results
<https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/17/opinion/remdesivir-covid-fda.html>), is
now in short supply in the United States
and Europe
Gilead Sciences, remdesivir’s manufacturer, has retained its monopoly over
the drug in rich countries, but in May it signed licensing agreements with
companies in 127 countries
so that they could produce generic versions for sale there. The result?
While there have been shortages of the drug in the West, it has been
available in increasingly stable supplies in several poor countries,
sometimes at one-tenth of the price

But the governments of rich countries can push back against Big Pharma,
too, and sometimes have done so — despite the pharmaceutical industry’s
sometimes colossal financial clout. (Campaign and lobbying contributions
from drugmakers to the U.S. federal government totaled some $4.7 billion
between 1999 and 2018, according to one recent study
<https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7054854/>.) In the aftermath
of 9/11, the United States feared an anthrax attack and needed unusually
large supplies of ciprofloxacin from Bayer; when the government threatened
to bypass the company’s patent
and buy generic alternatives, the company lowered the price of the
antibiotic and increased supplies

In Britain last year, families of children with cystic fibrosis petitioned
the government to suspend a company’s monopoly over Orkambi, the first
significant treatment for the disease. After political parties threw their
weight behind the petition, Vertex, the maker of Orkambi, agreed to sell
the drug at a much lower price
than it had been holding out for.

As for coronavirus vaccines and Covid-19 treatments, another meeting of the
TRIPs Council is scheduled for Dec. 10; on Dec. 16 and 17 the W.T.O.’s
general council, one of the organization’s highest decision-making bodies,
will meet. The United States, the European Union , and Britain are expected
to dig their heels in.

Yet mounting pressure from poor countries at the W.T.O. should give the
governments of rich countries leverage to negotiate with their
pharmaceutical companies for cheaper drugs and vaccines worldwide. Leaning
on those companies is the right the thing to do in the face of a global
pandemic; it is also the best way for the governments of rich countries to
take care of their own populations, which in some cases experience more
severe drug shortages than do people in far less affluent places.

Last month, the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal denounced the
TRIPs waiver proposal put forward by India and South Africa as a “patent
adding that “their effort would harm everyone, including the poor.” In
fact, the effort would help everyone, including the rich — if only the rich
could see that.

Achal Prabhala is the coordinator of the AccessIBSA project, which
campaigns for access to medicines, and a fellow of the Shuttleworth
Foundation, in Bangalore. Arjun Jayadev is a professor of economics at Azim
Premji University, in Bangalore, and a senior economist at the Institute
for New Economic Thinking. Dean Baker is a senior economist at the Center
for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C.

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