Health experts urge WHO to ensure global availability of COVID-19 medicines

May 12, 2020: Patents and other intellectual property rights could really slow down efforts to treat, contain and eradicate the new coronavirus, as was seen in the case of the A/H1N1 influenza pandemic in 2009, argues Ellen ’t Hoen, a specialist lawyer at Medicines Law & Policy, The Netherlands.

Pharmaceutical companies have monopoly patents on new medicines, which allow them to charge high prices for 20 years before cheaper versions of medicines become available. These monopolies have been entrenched in WTO trade agreements and have been extended in some regional and bilateral trade agreements.

Already leading pharmaceutical corporations Gilead Sciences and Roche have initially moved to profit at the expense of patients suffering from CoVID-19, and only decided to take a more pro-community approach when they came under criticism.

Gilead Sciences has a patent on remdesivir, which has been found to assist some patients with a severe case of COVID-19, and succeeded in extending this for seven years, before changing its mind. Remdesivir still remains protected by patents until 2029 or 2036 (depending on the claim) in many countries, which will bar competitors from supplying cheaper versions unless Gilead offers licenses.

Roche would not supply the formula for reagent used in its COVID-19 testing machines in Dutch hospitals, until the Dutch government persuaded it to do so.

In March 2020, Canada, Germany, Chile and Ecuador changed their patent laws to allow their governments to quickly grant a compulsory patent license when needed. A compulsory license gives competitors the right to produce, import and sell needed products.

Products for the prevention and treatment of COVID-19 should be global public goods. The research is being substantially funded by governments, who should make universal availability a condition of funding.

The best opportunity to fix this issue at a global level is an urgent proposal by Costa Rica to mandate the World Health Organisation to establish a global pooling mechanism for patents as well as rights to the data, knowledge and technologies useful in the prevention, detection and treatment of COVID-19. The European Union drafted a resolution asking the World Health Assembly to adopt this proposal at its virtual meeting on May 18-19, 2020.

If nations take up this idea, once medicines and vaccines become available, intellectual property rules will not be a barrier to making them accessible for all in need.

Costa Rica also asked that the Global Observatory on Health R&D create a database of R&D activity related to COVID-19, including estimates of the costs of clinical trials, and the subsidies provided by governments and charities.

Leading Australian public health academics, Deborah Gleeson and David Legge, have urged Australia to be prepared to use flexibilities in WTO trade rules to over-ride patents, authorise import of low-cost medicines and to support the Costa Rica proposal. The Australian government has so far not made a public response to Costa Rica.