As poor countries struggle with the coronavirus, the battle for vaccine patents intensifies


In April 2020, when the world was still on lockdown, a group of Oxford University researchers packaged the cell cultures needed to make an experimental coronavirus vaccine, and then quietly shipped them to the Serum Institute in India.

According to three people familiar with the matter, scientists worry that the university’s potential partner, AstraZeneca, is eager to control the intellectual property behind the vaccine, which will stop them, and that their vaccine will never reach the poorer countries that need it most. .

As far as AstraZeneca is concerned, their concerns will prove to be unfounded. The University of Oxford and the British-Swiss pharmaceutical manufacturer have since signed a licensing agreement with Serum and have produced hundreds of millions of cheap, portable injections for middle and low-income countries.

But in hindsight, the secret delivery of the Covid-19 vaccine aimed at ensuring the low-cost mass production of the Covid-19 vaccine was the beginning of the fierce battle over intellectual property and technology transfer that the world is now embroiled in.

Sandy Douglas is one of the researchers who developed the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.He said that the pharmaceutical group’s cooperation in technology transfer is commendable © Oxford University/John Keynes

“We considered the risk [Serum] We don’t want this to happen,” Sandy Douglas of Oxford University, one of the researchers who developed the lens, told the Financial Times. “But that doesn’t mean we don’t know Aspen. Likang may have a different view, and it may prefer total control. ”

Douglas said that the pharmaceutical group deserves “honor.” “once [AstraZeneca] Overcoming the initial hesitation, they did transfer the technology to poorer countries,” he said. AstraZeneca, Oxford University and the Serum Institute declined to comment.

But few other pharmaceutical companies did this, and when India and South Africa proposed to the World Trade Organization last October to suspend all Covid-related drugs and technology intellectual property rights, it was quickly rejected. India and South Africa said the move will make it easier and cheaper for third parties to produce the most successful vaccines and treatments, thereby boosting and diversifying production.

The pharmaceutical industry counters that the abandonment of patents is necessary to protect the investment required to bring the drug to the market, but will not result in more doses. Pharmaceutical company executives say they are already doing everything possible to scale up production, while third-party manufacturers lack the experience and expertise needed to produce complex vaccines without assistance.

Most Western governments supported the positions of these companies until the US supported the proposed proposal in May, shocking the entire industry. Patent exemption Used for Covid-19 vaccine.

But little changed after three months. WTO negotiations on the proposed exemption were suspended at the end of July, and no progress was made because delegates were scattered due to the European summer vacation. Although WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Ivera asked members to shorten the adjournment in view of the urgency of the issue, they do not plan to reconvene the meeting before September.

Observers said that although the US move is symbolic, it has so far done little to solve the technical problems it needs, and blamed the European Union, the UK and other high-income countries for continuing to hinder progress.

Asia Russell, executive director of the advocacy organization Health GAP, said that despite the encouraging words, the Biden administration failed to directly confront the pharmaceutical companies that “blocked the world’s access to life-saving vaccines.” This “most obvious leadership test” failed.

“This shirking of responsibility has led us into today’s nightmare,” she said. “Only 1.3% of people in low-income countries are vaccinated, and the White House has no real strategy to provide the 14 billion doses of vaccine the world needs to end this crisis.”

The Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine produced in India arrives at a clinic in Bangladesh.Only 1.3% of people in low-income countries have been vaccinated with the virus
The Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine produced in India arrives at a clinic in Bangladesh. In low-income countries, only 1.3% of people have been vaccinated with the virus © Majority World/Universal Images via Getty Images

Manufacturers of generic drugs say that delays prove costly. Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, head of India’s Biocon, said: “These companies have actually seen vaccine shortages in the way they restrict production due to paranoia.” “Pfizer and Moderna have maintained a very closed state and decided to only cooperate with a few manufacturers.”

She said that India is one of the largest vaccine suppliers in the world. “Why not make it a very important part of your global supply chain? You excluded them because of intellectual property rights. Now the world is suffering. This is a very short-sighted idea.”

Pfizer and its partner BioNTech plan to fill and complete the vaccine at a manufacturing center in South Africa starting next year. The two companies have pledged to provide 500 million doses of vaccine to 100 low-income countries, but few other companies have promised large supplies.

According to two people familiar with the matter, senior global health officials are increasingly annoyed by the industry’s inability to increase access and clashed with pharmaceutical industry executives at the WTO meeting last month.

Pfizer told the Financial Times that “weakening intellectual property rules will not solve these problems. [access] The challenge will not provide patients with vaccines faster.” Moderna did not respond to a request for comment.

A woman receives coronavirus vaccination in Kampala, Uganda
A woman receives coronavirus vaccination in Kampala, Uganda. Officials and activists accuse the pharmaceutical industry of artificial lack of injections © Nicholas Bamulanzeki/AP

This is not the first time that the pharmaceutical industry and other stakeholders have disputed over patent issues. The fight against HIV drugs in the 1990s culminated in 2001, when the Indian drug maker Cipla decided to provide generic drugs 350 USD The annual fee per patient, instead of the $10,000 to $15,000 charged by the large pharmaceutical groups, has caused shockwaves throughout the industry.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned that in the 10 years needed to provide medicines to the poor, the HIV epidemic of millions of deaths shows the world What not to do.

Hyo Yoon Kang, a law reader at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom, said the current shortage is not a “temporary” problem. “The company really wants to see to what extent they can promote monopoly in future epidemics.”

Suerie Moon, co-director of the Center for Global Health at the Geneva Graduate School, added that the current regulatory framework for the global pharmaceutical industry is flawed.

“We don’t have a clear policy framework to clarify the social contract,” she said. “If we don’t find a solution, if we can’t prove that the rules can be flexible enough and they can be extended to consider emergencies, they will become more fragile, lose legitimacy, and become less acceptable overall.”

Additional reporting by Stephanie Findlay in New Delhi and Hannah Kuchler in London



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