Pharmaceutical companies must relinquish their intellectual property rights over the coronavirus vaccine and expand availability in low-income countries, or they risk being tarred as taking advantage of the pandemic, according to global trade and public health officials.
“This is not acceptable,” said World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Tuesday during an event broadcast as part of the IMF and World Bank Group annual meetings. “It's in the interest of each and every country in the world to waive IP and do everything to increase production and end this pandemic as soon as possible.”
Vaccine allocations have been driven by contracts between governments and the leading vaccine producers, with citizens of wealthy countries receiving two and sometimes three doses of the vaccination, even as impoverished societies worldwide remain vulnerable to the pandemic. That dynamic has prompted criticism for Western governments contemplating booster shot campaigns and pressure toward the companies at the core of vaccine supply.
“We hear a lot about the profits before people, and obviously, if you look at their numbers, it is true that you know they're earning far more than they ever have,” said World Trade Organization Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. "So that’s why we’re working with them to say, look, the perception of this — profits before the lives of people — is neither good publicly for you, nor for everyone, not for anyone.”
Becky Anderson, managing editor for CNN Abu Dhabi, elicited that remark by asking if Moderna and Pfizer (along with Pfizer’s European partner, BioNTech) are guilty of “prolonging this pandemic by putting profits before people.” Okonjo-Iweala argued in favor of expanding manufacturing facilities into underserved regions of the world in an apparent bid to sidestep the various export controls that have interfered with international vaccine supply lines.
“We need to decentralize production to some of the countries that have no capacity ... We cannot continue importing 99% of these vaccines,” she said. “So we're working with them to really try to get partnerships on the continent in Latin America as well in low-income countries so that they can demonstrate that look for them. It's not profits but it's people.”
Pfizer’s top official for Africa and the Middle East touted a plan to begin manufacturing vaccines in South Africa. Still, he put the onus on national and regional authorities to create a “regulatory and legal and access framework” that would allow companies to operate more easily across countries.
“As nice as all the individual markets are individually, none of them are big enough to warrant the type of investment that we're talking about,” Pfizer regional president Patrick van der Loo told the Atlantic Council’s Amjad Ahmad this week. “Then it becomes attractive to pool the investment because we know we're manufacturing for a continent. We're not manufacturing for five people.”
Van der Loo also cautioned against oversimplifying the question of whether to allow companies to retain ownership of the vaccine recipes.
“It's very easily said abandon and abolish all patents. And then all the world's problems with the pandemic will be solved,” he said. But the reality is, you need a strong [intellectual property] culture to help promote medical progress because it provides incentives to stakeholders to sustain [research and development] and the investments in manufacturing, and it encourages the tech transfer that is needed, and the [foreign direct investment] that is needed to fuel innovation and economic growth.”
Tedros, the World Health Organization chief, acknowledged that “we need incentives for the private sector” but maintained their equities can be satisfied by restoring their intellectual property rights at some point in the future.
“We need to appreciate their role because they have developed these vaccines in less than a year,” he said. “It could be two years or three years, or until the end of the pandemic, and it could focus on vaccines only.”
Okonjo-Iweala cautioned against directing too much hostility at the companies.
“We need the manufacturers because without them, we're not going to be able to manufacture vaccines,” she said. “So we cannot alienate them, but we have to persuade them that it's better for them to be public citizens and put people before profit.”
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Original Author: Joel Gehrke