The vaccine for COVID-10 pandemic is certainly need of the day and it must therefore be appreciated that scientists devised is antidote in the shortest possible time. The last one year has also proved to be a trying time for the pharmaceutical industry as it felt the weight of the expectations pinned on it by the world. Both the scientists and pharmacists were unnerved by the extremely aggressive march of the killer virus rampaging unrestrained and taking heavy toll of life. They had to work under tremendous duress amidst the increasing pall of hopelessness and pain. The exercise of working out an effective vaccine for the virus was further complicated by widespread lockdowns and movement restraints. Yet they toiled hard ultimately succeeding in their mission.
Now the vaccine is out and is used globally the blueprints and technical know-how of the vaccine belongs to the large pharmaceutical companies who produce the first three vaccines authorised by countries including Britain, the European Union and the US and they are Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca. Across Africa and Southeast Asia, governments and aid groups, as well as the World Health Organisation, 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 over 2.5 million lives.
It is well-known that pharmaceutical companies that took taxpayer money from the US or Europe to develop inoculations at unprecedented speed say that 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. WHO called for vaccine manufacturers to share their know-how to dramatically increase the global supply. Many firms in these countries have the required equipment to manufacture the vaccine and most of them are already making vaccines against hepatitis, flu, meningitis, rabies, tetanus and measles.
It should also be borne in mind that 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. More than 210 countries and territories with a collective population of 2.5 billion had not received a single shot as of last week. 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 AstraZeneca vaccine — more than governments in the European Union. AstraZeneca said the price of the vaccine will differ depending on factors such as production costs, where the shots are made and how much countries order.
What is seen currently is that the vaccine is going where those with the deepest pockets, with the sharpest elbows are grabbing what is there and leaving others to die. In South Africa, home to the world’s most worrisome COVID-19 variant, the Biovac factory has said for weeks that it is 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 Organisation by the United States and Europe, home to the companies responsible for creating the coronavirus vaccines. 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 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 organisation 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. Even still, the European Union imposed export controls on vaccines, giving countries the power to stop shots from leaving their borders in some cases. On her first statement the new DG of WTO has emphasised that the time had come to shift attention to the vaccination needs of the world’s poor.
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. This attitude is described by the pharmaceutical about sharing the idea of sharing IP rights widely as nonsense and even dangerous. AstraZeneca is on record stating that if intellectual property is not protected then there is no incentive for anybody to innovate. The idea of lifting patent protections has been termed as pharmaceutical industry as a very bad signal to the future. However, 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. They mention that people are literally dying because there is no agreement on intellectual property rights.
Most experts are of the opinion that governments that poured billions of dollars into developing vaccines and treatments should have demanded more from the companies they were financing from the beginning. They also emphasise that 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. Dr. Anthony Fauci points out that rich countries have a moral responsibility in wake of a global outbreak like this.
It is 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. Many experts however are confident 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. Many companies in the developing world have offered to make vaccines in two ways: by offering their production lines to Moderna and by reaching out to a WHO partner but Moderna did not respond to multiple requests. They point out that doing more tech transfer right now could actually put the production and the increased output for the months to come at great risk.
The pharmaceutical companies of the developing world are in discussions 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 has come of it. The inference here is that this proposal did not elicit any interest though there are ongoing discussions about matchmaking opportunities including the possibility of using their technical expertise for manufacturing second wave vaccines. TW