Thursday, June 18, 2020

Patents Before Patients

The United Nations, International Red Cross and Red Crescent, and others said it was a “moral imperative” that everyone have access to a “people’s vaccine.” 
 Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo agreed.
“The global spread of COVID-19 has told us in no uncertain terms that disease knows no boundaries and no country can afford to go it alone,” he said. “Only a people’s vaccine with equality and solidarity at its core can protect all of humanity from the virus. ... A bold international agreement to this end cannot wait.”
But such grand declarations are unenforceable.
“We have this beautiful picture of everyone getting the vaccine, but there is no road map on how to do it,” said Yuan Qiong Hu, a senior legal and policy adviser at Medecins Sans Frontieres in Geneva. She said numerous problems must be resolved to manage distribution and that few measures have been taken. In the past, Hu said, companies have often applied for patents for nearly every step of a vaccine’s development and production: from the biological material like cell lines used, to the preservative needed to stretch vaccine doses and even how the shots are administered.
“We can’t afford to face these multiple layers of private rights to create a ‘people’s vaccine,’” she said, urging “very open conditions” so every manufacturer capable of doing so can produce a vaccine once its proven effective.
The World Health Organization and others have called for a COVID-19 “patents pool,” where intellectual property rights would be surrendered so pharmaceuticals could freely share data and technical knowledge. Numerous countries including Australia, Brazil, Canada and Germany have already begun revising their licensing laws to allow them to suspend intellectual property rights if authorities decide there is an overwhelming need given the pandemic. But the response from the industry has been lukewarm. Executives at Pfizer and some other major drug makers say they oppose suspending patent rights for potential COVID-19 vaccines.
 There is no precedent for divvying up vaccines that would arguably be needed by every country on the planet.
“We can’t just rely on goodwill to ensure access,” said Arzoo Ahmed, of Britain’s Nuffield Council on Bioethics, noting that precedents of how innovative drugs have been distributed are not encouraging. “With HIV/AIDS, it took 10 years for the drugs to reach people in lower-income countries."

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