[Ip-health] AP: Countries call on drug companies to share vaccine know-how

Thiru Balasubramaniam thiru at keionline.org
Mon Mar 1 03:39:30 PST 2021


Countries call on drug companies to share vaccine know-how

By LORI HINNANT and MARIA CHENG27 minutes ago

Production personnel perform a visual inspection of filled vaccine vials
inside the Incepta plant on the outskirts of Dhaka in Bangladesh Saturday
Feb. 13, 2021. In an industrial neighborhood on the outskirts of
Bangladesh's largest city lies a factory with gleaming new equipment
imported from Germany, its immaculate hallways lined with hermetically
sealed rooms. Yet the factory is operating at just a quarter of its
capacity. It is one of three factories that The Associated Press found on
three continents whose owners say they could start producing hundreds of
millions of COVID-19 vaccines on short notice if only they had the
blueprints and technical know-how. (AP Photo/Al-emrun Garjon)

PARIS (AP) — In an industrial neighborhood on the outskirts of Bangladesh’s
largest city lies a factory with gleaming new equipment imported from
Germany, its immaculate hallways lined with hermetically sealed rooms. It
is operating at just a quarter of its capacity.

It is one of three factories that The Associated Press found on three
continents whose owners say they could start producing hundreds of millions
of COVID-19 vaccines on short notice if only they had the blueprints and
technical know-how. But that knowledge belongs to the large pharmaceutical
companies who produce the first three vaccines authorized by countries
including Britain, the European Union and the U.S. — Pfizer, Moderna and
AstraZeneca. The factories are all still awaiting responses.

Across Africa and Southeast Asia, governments and aid groups, as well as
the WHO, are calling on pharmaceutical companies to share their patent
information more broadly to meet a yawning global shortfall in a pandemic
that already has claimed nearly 2.5 million lives. Pharmaceutical companies
that took taxpayer money from the U.S. or Europe to develop inoculations at
unprecedented speed say they are negotiating contracts and exclusive
licensing deals with producers on a case-by-case basis because they need to
protect their intellectual property and ensure safety.

Critics say this piecemeal approach is just too slow at a time of urgent
need to stop the virus before it mutates into even deadlier forms. Last
month, WHO called for vaccine manufacturers to share their know-how to
“dramatically increase the global supply.”

“If that can be done then immediately overnight every continent will have
dozens of companies who would be able to produce these vaccines,” said
Abdul Muktadir, whose Incepta plant in Bangladesh already makes vaccines
against hepatitis, flu, meningitis, rabies, tetanus and measles.

All over the world, the supply of coronavirus vaccines is falling far short
of demand, and the limited amount available is going to rich countries.
Nearly 80% of the vaccines so far have been administered in just 10
countries, according to WHO. More than 210 countries with a collective
population of 2.5 billion haven’t received a single shot.

The deal-by-deal approach also means that some poorer countries end up
paying more for the same vaccine than richer countries. South Africa,
Mexico, Brazil and Uganda all pay different amounts per dose for the same
AstraZeneca vaccine — more than governments in the European Union,
according to studies and publicly available documents. AstraZeneca said in
an email that the price of the vaccine will differ depending on factors
such as production costs, where the shots are made and how much countries

“What we see today is a stampede, a survival of the fittest approach, where
those with the deepest pockets, with the sharpest elbows are grabbing what
is there and leaving others to die,” said Winnie Byanyima, executive
director of UNAIDS.

In South Africa, home to the world’s most worrisome COVID-19 variant, the
Biovac factory has said for weeks that it’s in negotiations with an unnamed
manufacturer with no contract to show for it. And in Denmark, the Bavarian
Nordic factory has capacity to spare and the ability to make more than 200
million doses but is also waiting for word from the producer of a licensed
coronavirus vaccine.

Governments and health experts offer two potential solutions to the vaccine
shortage: One, supported by WHO, is a patent pool modeled after a platform
set up for HIV, tuberculosis and hepatitis treatments for voluntary sharing
of technology, intellectual property and data. But not a single company has
offered to share its data or transfer the necessary technology.

The other, a proposal to suspend intellectual property rights during the
pandemic, has been blocked in the World Trade Organization by the United
States and Europe, home to the companies responsible for creating the
vaccines described as the best way to stop the spread of coronavirus. That
drive has the support of at least 119 countries among the WTO’s 164 member
states, and the African Union, but is adamantly opposed by vaccine makers.

Pharmaceutical companies say that instead of lifting IP restrictions, rich
countries should simply give more of the vaccines they have to poorer
countries through COVAX, the public-private initiative WHO helped create
for equitable vaccine distribution. The organization and its partners
delivered its first doses last week — in very limited quantities.

But rich countries are not willing to give up what they have. Earlier this
month, Ursula Von der Leyen, head of the European Commission, used the
phrase “global common good” to describe the vaccines. However, by the end
of the week, the European Union had imposed export controls on vaccines,
giving countries the power to stop shots from leaving their borders in some

The long-held model in the pharmaceutical industry is that companies pour
in huge amounts of money and research in return for the right to reap
profits from their drugs and vaccines. At an industry forum last May,
Pfizer’s CEO Albert Bourla described the idea of sharing IP rights widely
as “nonsense” and even “dangerous.” AstraZeneca’s chief Pascal Soriot said
that if intellectual property is not protected, “there is no incentive for
anybody to innovate.”

Thomas Cueni, director general of the International Federation of
Pharmaceutical Manufacturers, called the idea of lifting patent protections
“a very bad signal to the future. You signal that if you have a pandemic,
your patents are not worth anything.”

Advocates of sharing vaccine blueprints argue that, unlike with most drugs,
taxpayers paid billions to develop vaccines that are now “global public
goods” and should be used to end the biggest public health emergency in
living memory.

“People are literally dying because we cannot agree on intellectual
property rights,” said Mustaqeem De Gama, a South African diplomat who has
been deeply involved in the WTO discussions.

Paul Fehlner, the chief legal officer for biotech company Axcella and a
supporter of the WHO patent pool board, said governments that poured
billions of dollars into developing vaccines and treatments should have
demanded more from the companies they were financing from the beginning.

“A condition of taking taxpayer money is not treating them as dupes,” he

In a Feb. 3 interview with the Journal of the American Medical Association,
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the leading pandemic expert in the United States, said
all options need to be on the table, including increasing aid, improving
production capacity in the developing world and working with pharmaceutical
companies to relax their patents.

“Rich countries, ourselves included, have a moral responsibility when you
have a global outbreak like this,” Fauci said. “We’ve got to get the entire
world vaccinated, not just our own country.”

It’s hard to know exactly how much more vaccine could be made worldwide if
intellectual property restrictions were lifted, because the spare
production capacity of factories has not been publicly shared. But Suhaib
Siddiqi, former director of chemistry at Moderna, said that with the
blueprint and technical advice, a modern factory should be able to get
vaccine production going in at most three to four months.

“In my opinion the vaccine belongs to the public,” said Siddiqi, who is
still active in the field. “Any company which has experience synthesizing
molecules should be able to do it.”

Back in Bangladesh, the Incepta factory tried to get what it needed to make
more vaccines in two ways, by offering its production lines to Moderna and
by reaching out to a WHO partner. Moderna did not respond to multiple
requests for comment about the Bangladesh plant, but its CEO, Stéphane
Bancel, told European parliamentarians that the company’s engineers are
fully occupied on expanding production in Europe.

“Doing more tech transfer right now could actually put the production and
the increased output for the months to come at great risk,” he said. “We
are very open to do it in the future once our current sites are running.”

Muktadir said he was also in discussions last May with CEPI, or the
Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, one of WHO’s partners in a
global effort to buy and distribute COVID-19 vaccines fairly, but nothing
came of it. CEPI spokesman Tom Mooney said the talks last year with Incepta
didn’t raise interest, but that CEPI is still in discussions “about
matchmaking opportunities including the possibility of using Incepta’s
capacity for second wave vaccines.”

Muktadir said he fully appreciates the extraordinary scientific achievement
involved in the creation of vaccines this year, wants the rest of the world
to be able to share in it, and is willing to pay a fair price.

“Nobody should give their property just for nothing,” he said. “A vaccine
could be made accessible to people — high quality, effective vaccines.”


Cheng reported from Toronto. Jamey Keaten in Geneva, Jan M. Olsen in
Copenhagen, Denmark, Al-Emrun Garjon in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and Andrew
Meldrum in Johannesburg, South Africa, contributed to this report.

Thiru Balasubramaniam
Geneva Representative
Knowledge Ecology International
41 22 791 6727
thiru at keionline.org

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