Big Pharma imposes monopoly rights in COVID-19 vaccine race

August 27, 2020: Initial commitments by university-based vaccine developers and the World Health Organisation to provide COVID-19 vaccines to all manufacturers without paying high monopoly prices have been overwhelmed by the pharmaceutical industry’s absolute commitment to intellectual property rights, according to a report in Fortune Magazine.

Intellectual Property provisions in the World Trade Organisation TRIPS agreement and in regional and bilateral Free Trade Agreements provide pharmaceutical companies with patent monopolies, giving high prices for at least 20 years. Governments 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.

Oxford University surprised and pleased advocates of overhauling the vaccine business in April by promising to donate the rights to its promising coronavirus vaccine to any manufacturer.

The idea was to provide medicines preventing or treating COVID-19 at a low cost or free of charge, the British university said. That made sense to people seeking change because of the failure of the pharmaceutical industry to focus on low-profit vaccines for many decades.

Only a few weeks after its April announcement, Oxford—pressed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—flipped, and signed an exclusive vaccine deal with AstraZeneca, a UK-Swedish company. AstraZeneca would have sole rights and made no guarantee of low prices.

Other companies working on coronavirus vaccines have followed the same line, collecting billions in government grants, hoarding patents, revealing as little as possible about their deals. Pfizer, BioNTech and Moderna intend to charge up to $37 each for hundreds of millions of doses.

The longstanding failure of the pharmaceutical industry to provide vaccines to those who need them in poor countries motivated the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to launch Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance, in 2000, and CEPI (Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations) in 2017.

CEPI asked for public data disclosure from drug-company grantees, “transparent” accounting to show true vaccine cost and the right to step in and take over a vaccine project if the developer failed to deliver.

But big pharma objected and CEPI backflipped in February 2020. The drug companies were “concerned about the precedent that could be set if they allowed an outside entity, in this case CEPI, to set [the] price of a product unilaterally,” CEPI reported in February.

Next, in May 2020, the World Health Organization set up a “COVID-19 Technology Access Pool” to promote the sharing of patents and other knowledge. Oxford stepped forward and said it would offer nonexclusive, royalty-free licenses for its vaccine, meaning multiple parties could sell it at a low cost. But WHO has made no announcements about contributions to its COVID-19 shared technology pool since it launched.

“[Bill] Gates has staked out this outsized role in the vaccine world,” said James Love, director of Knowledge Ecology International, a nonprofit that works to expand access to medical technology. “He has an ideological belief that the intellectual property system is a wonderful mechanism that is necessary for innovation and prosperity.”

“We simply don’t know what’s in these deals,” said Duncan Matthews, a patent law professor at the Queen Mary University of London. “The biopharma industry is applying old rules of commercial confidentiality in a situation that is unprecedented.”