IP is no barrier to COVID vaccine access, says industry

by Stephen Riddle

While proponents argue waiving IP on COVID-19 vaccines would better enable low- and middle-income countries to inoculate their populations, the pharma industry has called the proposals “unnecessary and harmful to innovation”.

Proposals to waive COVID-19 product patents have been described as “political posturing” and an “answer to a problem that does not exist”.

The Quad compromise, a World Health Organization plan which would, if enacted, release members from granting or enforcing COVID-19 vaccine patents, was discussed at the 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12) last week.

But the pharmaceutical industry has said the move could “undermine innovation and industry’s ability to partner, invest at risk, and respond quickly to future pandemics”.

In a joint statement, the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Association (IFPMA), the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA), the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), the International Council of Biotechnology Associations (ICBA), the Association of the British Pharmaceutical industry (ABPI), the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), and the Japan Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association (JPMA), said: “The associations representing the global research-based biopharmaceutical industry reaffirm that weakening the IP framework, as proposed in the Quad compromise, is unnecessary and harmful to innovation.

“An IP waiver does not address inequitable access to COVID-19 vaccines and will put global health security at risk.”

Access barriers

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the pharmaceutical industry was quick to swing into action. The first vaccine, from Pfizer, was approved just 326 days after WHO declared the outbreak pandemic and changed the course of the global crisis.

“COVID-19 vaccines and treatments were only possible because of decades-long investment in research and an enabling IP framework that encouraged swift, voluntary partnerships across the private, public, and academic sectors.”

As of June 2022, more than 5.22 billion people, or 68% of the world’s population, had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and 62% were fully vaccinated. However, there is still a huge disparity in access across the globe.

In the UK, 75% of the population is fully vaccinated, a figure that stands at 67% in the United States, 79% in France, 78% in Germany, and 86% in Spain. That compares to just 0.1% in Burundi, 1.2% in Haiti, and 1.4% in Congo.

Those behind the Quad compromise believe it will allow LMIC to roll out their vaccine programmes more efficiently by allowing countries to scale up production quickly and affordably.

But the EFPIA says there is no evidence to suggest that the current IP framework has been a barrier to access. In fact, the organisation says, global vaccine production capacity is vastly exceeding demand.

“From the outset of the pandemic, industry knew that it would need to scale up quickly, seeking to build capacity before approvals were granted, partnering wherever possible, all while pledging to not compromise on quality, safety and efficacy,” said the joint statement.

By May 2021, less than six months after the first vaccine authorisation, monthly production output was close to a billion vaccine doses. This would be enough to vaccinate the world “if countries were willing and able to share,” it went on, adding that warnings about access have gone unheeded.

“Industry has called on governments to remove trade restrictions, share doses, and prepare health systems to roll out vaccinations, a message repeated in March 2022 when critical bottlenecks in vaccine delivery and administration, often linked to weak healthcare systems, were becoming even more evident.”

Since then, then IP framework has “fallen victim of political posturing”, it claims.

Accelerating roll out

The pharmaceutical industry argues the draft proposals would serve to undermine the very system that underpinned the rapid development of vaccines in the first place.

“COVID-19 vaccines and treatments were only possible because of decades-long investment in research and an enabling IP framework that encouraged swift, voluntary partnerships across the private, public, and academic sectors,” said the joint statement.

Richard Torbett, chief executive of the ABPI, says the proposals would divert attention away from supporting the efforts that are already underway to get COVID-19 vaccines to people in LMICs.

Megan Van Etten, a spokesman for PhRMA, echoed these sentiments, saying: “Efforts to waive IP commitments are unnecessary and harmful to our collective work to end the pandemic.

“Strong IP protections, voluntary technology transfers and partnerships are on target to facilitate the production of more than 20 billion doses in 2022 – more than enough to vaccinate the world – without confiscating intellectual property.”

Address the real challenges

Instead of removing IP protections, the industry believes global leaders should focus on addressing the challenges of distributing and administering vaccines to people around the world.

“We must redouble our collective efforts to achieve health equity, while ensuring health systems and delivery infrastructure are strengthened,” said the statement.

“A much better approach is to focus on the real challenges to COVID-19 vaccine access including removing trade barriers, addressing distribution challenges, strengthening healthcare systems, and partnering to drive innovation and access.”

About the author

Amanda Barrell

Amanda BarrellAmanda Barrell is a freelance health and medical education journalist, editor and copywriter. She has worked on projects for pharma, charities, and agencies, and has written extensively for patients, HCPs and the public

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