COVID-19 vaccine race reinforced by trade rules for monopolies on medicines

August 14, 2020: A short but growing list of countries are now signing pre-order contracts with pharmaceutical manufacturers for possible COVID-19 vaccines, which could leave behind most of the world’s population in 2021.

Intellectual Property provisions in the World Trade Organisation TRIPS agreement and in regional and bilateral Free Trade Agreements provide pharmaceutical companies with patents monopolies giving high prices for at least 20 years. Governments from countries where these companies are based – mainly the USA, UK, and Europe –have been lobbied by these companies to retain and expand these monopoly rights, despite the fact that the WTO itself has exceptions to them for emergencies like the pandemic. Other governments act out of fear that their populations will miss out.

So far, the United States, United Kingdom, Japan, Brazil, and Switzerland have signed pre-order contracts for VOCID-19 vaccines now in development, outside the global cooperative program launched by the World Health Organisation in May 2020. None of these pre-order contracts include provision for suspending patent rights during the pandemic. The prices are negotiated with the companies, and almost all are higher than low-income countries can afford.

This leaves nations without the resources to pre-order the option of a seeking compulsory licence under WTO rules to produce or import vaccines without the authorisation of the patent holder. But there may not be any manufacturing capacity available for them.

US pre-order deals

AstraZeneca - US$1,200 million to AstraZeneca for 300 million doses

Moderna - $1,500 million for 100 million doses, with an option for another 400 million doses.

Johnson & Johnson - over US$1,000 million for 100 million doses.

Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE – US$1,950 million for 100 million doses


UK pre-sale deals

AstraZeneca - for 100 million doses, price undisclosed.

Pfizer and BioNTech SE – 30 million doses

Valneva – 60 million doses

GlaxoSmithKline/Sanofi Pasteur - 60 million doses


Switzerland pre-sale deals

Moderna - US$110-160 million for 4.5 million doses, based on the biotech company's own pricing of $32-37 a dose.


European Commission pre-sale deals

AstraZeneca – 400 million doses


Japan pre-sale deals

AstraZeneca 120 million doses, price undisclosed

Pfizer and BioNTech SE 120 million doses, price undisclosed


Brazil pre-sale deals

AstraZeneca - $287 million for up to 100 million doses


These figures suggest price ranges from US$4 per dose from AstraZeneca, to $10 per dose from Johnson & Johnson, to US$25 from Moderna, to $39 for two doses from Pfizer and BioNTech.

The Australian government says it is exploring the option of pre-orders, and the Labor Opposition is criticising it for failing to do so already.

These figures total 1.795 billion doses. The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) estimates that there is only enough global manufacturing capacity to produce two to four billion doses through to the end of 2021. If countries continue to sign individual deals, there simply won’t be enough for poorer countries.

The World Health Organisation has been striving to avoid this outcome, and launched the Covid-19 Global Access Facility (COVAX) to speed up development and fair access to a vaccine. It aims to procure two billion doses to vaccinate 20% of participating countries' populations by the end of 2021, with vulnerable groups like frontline health workers given priority in every country. Many countries have made expressions of interest to the COVAX Facility, including Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, Japan and Switzerland, but not Australia or the United States.

Interfaith push back

The Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) issued a press release on August 11, 2020, citing  letters sent to 17 pharma companies by 59 investors representing US$2.5 trillion in assets, The letters note that much of the research for vaccines is publicly funded, and seeks a commitment to ensure widespread access to treatments and vaccines for COVID-19, including affordable pricing and the sharing of technology to scale-up manufacturing.