“There’s much hope in the scientific world that the technological and scientific breakthrough of mRNA COVID-19 vaccines can be applied to a variety of other illnesses and save millions of lives. However, the Alliance views the pharmaceutical industry’s posture on intellectual property as a hindrance to further scientific research.”
The People’s Vaccine Alliance, a coalition of over 100 organizations, issued a statement this week alleging that the pharmaceutical industry is attempting to tighten its control of the world’s pandemic response plans.
In the statement, the organization argues that “enshrining pharmaceutical companies’ demands in a pandemic treaty or other pandemic preparedness plans would normalize global inequalities and tie the hands of governments in future health crises.”
The Alliance released the statement in response to the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations’ (IFPMA) July statement titled the Berlin Declaration – Biopharmaceutical Industry Vision for Equitable Access in Pandemics during the World Health Summit, where stakeholders from politics, science, the private sector, and civil society gathered in Berlin from October 16-18.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent vaccine rollout, global vaccine inequality has become a key issue. The World Health Organization (WHO) set a mid-2022 global vaccination target at 70%, however only 58 of 194 WHO member countries reached that goal, with low and middle-income countries lagging behind in vaccination. However, the WHO points to vaccine delivery challenges, rather than production issues, as the primary holdup for the world’s COVID-19 vaccination rate.
What Pharma Companies Ignore
According to The People’s Vaccine Alliance, the Berlin Declaration “ignores three basic facts.” These include that the COVID-19 pandemic persists, access to countermeasures such as vaccines has been inequitable, and public funding is key to developing medical technology.
The group claims that pharmaceutical companies are obfuscating public funding’s important role in COVID-19 vaccine development.
“The [Berlin] Declaration is a continuation of a consistent ‘third way’ campaign by the biopharmaceutical industry to maintain exclusive intellectual property (IP) protections and monopoly control over the medical technologies,” said the Alliance in a statement.
The Berlin Declaration emphasizes the importance of the IP system to the biopharmaceutical industry’s success in developing vaccines. In addition, the IFPMA’s declaration proposes a “collaborative solution for more equitable rollout of vaccines” and mentions measures to make vaccines more affordable to low-income countries.
However, the Alliance argues that the IFPMA is attempting to whitewash its own failures by using this language. Their statement recalls historic failures to timely deal with other pandemics, including HIV/AIDS.
The group takes specific aim at the biopharmaceutical industry’s use of IP laws and the IFPMA’s argument that “intellectual property rights should be respected since society depends on them to stimulate innovation and the scale up of supply.” In contrast, the Alliance argues that the industry’s use of mRNA, the crucial technology behind Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccines, was facilitated by decades of publicly funded research. Patents around key mRNA technologies have caused heated academic and legal debate, and pharmaceutical companies were able to access and use “foundational [mRNA] intellectual property” because it had recently entered the public domain, says the Alliance.
There’s much hope in the scientific world that the technological and scientific breakthrough of mRNA COVID-19 vaccines can be applied to a variety of other illnesses and save millions of lives. However, the Alliance views the pharmaceutical industry’s posture on intellectual property as a hindrance to further scientific research.
According to the group, “[the pharmaceutical industry’s] patent applications are sometimes so broadly written that they block other innovators’ efforts to build on existing knowledge in order to address public health concerns.”
Ultimately, the Alliance’s statement claims that public funding drives innovation while IP impedes it.
The Alliance also reiterated its objections to the much-maligned deal struck to waive IP rights for COVID-19 vaccines under the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). The agreement was unpopular with both civil society organizations and business groups when it was announced in June this year.
When the TRIPS waiver was finalized, Max Lawson, Co-Chair of the People’s Vaccine Alliance and Head of Inequality Policy at Oxfam, said “this is absolutely not the broad intellectual property waiver the world desperately needs to ensure access to vaccines and treatments for everyone, everywhere.”
The Alliance continued in their critique of the TRIPS waiver in their latest report by stating the agreement is shaped by special interests, poorly designed, and has impeded innovation. They highlight patent litigation between Moderna and Pfizer as an example of litigation that “has a chilling effect on efforts to decentralize and localize manufacturing of mRNA technologies in developing countries.”
While the Alliance has been heavily critical of the waiver agreement, lobbying groups for the pharmaceutical industry have also expressed their criticism.
Hans Sauer, Deputy General Counsel and VP for IP at the Biotechnology Industry Organization wrote “the proposed blanket suspension of IP rights is no quick fix for the pandemic, as it is unlikely to accelerate the delivery of COVID-19 vaccines.”
U.S. Chamber of Commerce Global Innovation Policy Center (GIPC) Senior Vice President Patrick Kilbride said, “this… would set an unfortunate precedent and may limit innovative companies’ ability to devote unprecedented resources to quickly discover and deliver solutions for the next global crisis.”
Kilbride instead argued that the focus should be on the genuine “last-mile challenges” of getting shots into arms rather than focusing on IP waivers. The WHO has made similar arguments about the difficulty of getting shots in arms in lower and middle-income countries. On their webpage on vaccine equity the WHO avoids the issue of patents and IP and instead states, “national healthcare system capacity will need to be strengthened. Increasingly COVID-19 vaccination services will need to be integrated with other immunization services and alongside other health and social interventions for maximum impact and to build long-term capacity.”
In their response to the Berlin Declaration, the Alliance takes issue with the IFPMA’s emphasis on country readiness to vaccinate their population. Once again, they point to the history of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, in which they argue the “industry’s excessive prices” reduced access to populations in need.
Likewise, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Alliance argues “it was difficult for governments of developing countries to run vaccination campaigns or prepare the health system when they did not know when they would receive vaccines, how many doses would be arriving, and of which vaccines.”
Rather than low and middle-income countries lacking preparedness, the civil society group says the uncertainty of vaccine delivery was the most important factor hampering vaccine campaigns.
In response to the Berlin Declaration, Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of UNAIDS and Co-Chair of the People’s Vaccine Alliance, said “the world needs an international agreement that guarantees fair and equitable access to medical products for everyone, everywhere, not a power grab by big pharma.”
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