Covid-19 vaccine patent pooling enters uncertain waters

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has endorsed a proposal by Costa Rica and Chile to pool data, knowledge and intellectual property for a Covid-19 vaccine, ensuring universal access to any eventual cure. But with the US failing to support the proposal and ‘vaccine nationalism’ increasing in prominence, the quest for a universal vaccine is about to enter treacherous waters.

Nurse graffiti in Amsterdam
Nurse graffiti in Amsterdam

Image: Iamfake/Instagram

Alan Story

There are two views on whether the World Health Organization (WHO) took valuable steps forward this week towards gaining global access to a Covid-19 whenever it is developed. Plus other views, including those of Donald Trump. 

“I'm quite optimistic good progress was made. The countries of the world came together, showed solidarity and reached a consensus, minus one, on a pandemic vaccine”, a jubilant – and exhausted – Ellen ‘t Hoen told Green World in an interview from France. A lawyer, doctor and a veteran campaigner for global access to medicine, she directs Medicines Law and Policy.

With only one formal objection, namely that of the United States, the 194-member WHO decided on Tuesday (19 May) to endorse a seven-page proposal from Costa Rica and Chile to establish a technology pooling initiative to ensure access to Covid-19 health products for all.   

As explained in a WHO press release: "The platform will pool data, knowledge and intellectual property for existing or new Covid-19 health products to deliver ‘global public goods’ for all peoples in all countries. Through the open sharing of science and data, numerous companies will be able to access information they need to bridge the technologies, thereby scaling up availability worldwide, lowering costs and increasing access.” 

This approach differs significantly from the typical use and distribution of patented pharmaceutical products. Patents convey a monopoly to the owners of such drugs for up to 20 years or longer; they become a global private goods. 

The negative global example of HIV/AIDS

This usual practice, of course, significantly limits distribution of vaccines and other drugs to those who cannot afford them or who live in countries without a state-funded public health system. 

The initial cost barriers in the Global South to the distribution of anti-retroviral drugs for HIV-AIDS serve as a terrible negative example. So, too, does the fact that pharmaceutical giants did not begin research into malaria-related medicines until US “GIs” began dying in the 1960s during the Vietnam War after the US invaded that country.  

The Covid-19 pandemic of 2020, the worst global pandemic in over a century, has put the vaccine issue and Big Pharma’s response front and centre. Groups such as Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and many governments in the Global South have been demanding a serious once-in-a-hundred-years response that puts people before profit.   

This week’s 73rd WHO World Health Assembly, which was held online, deliberated against the growing tide of what is being called “vaccine nationalism", the view that countries should solely worry about their own citizens and make others in the world go to the back of the queue for a vaccine, a vaccine that is not expected until late 2020 at the earliest. 

Not surprisingly, the Trump Administration leads this ideological and practical campaign, but the government of Boris Johnson does not lag too far behind. Last week, the UK Government pledged £93 million for a vaccine manufacturing facility, with press reports stating that “the UK would be the first country to get access to the vaccine”. No mention was made about distribution elsewhere if this vaccine proves to be safe and effective. 

Last week I watched an online webinar at which a leading WHO doctor said a vaccine, if and when developed, should first be distributed to health workers world wide. The official WHO vaccine distribution plan may be rolled out on 29 May when more details are released. 

The Green Party fully supports an accessible vaccine

In a 20 May interview, Larry Sanders, Green Party health spokesperson, said that “the Green Party fully supports the principle that a Covid-19 vaccine should be accessible to all peoples of the world”. 

There is, however, a second view that while this WHO pooling initiative is a step forward, the real battle for an accessible vaccine will occur over the coming months in the offices of intellectual property solicitors for major pharmaceutical companies.

Under this WHO plan, the pooling of a Covid-9 vaccine would be voluntary and not compulsory (as international law permits), the terms of research funding contracts remain hidden, and, moreover, the opponents of the Costa Rican and Chilean proposal choose not to show their hand at this week’s World Health Assembly where the international media was watching. 

“The key question will be whether governments around the world apply pressure to the WHO and restrain Big Pharma. Given that governments have been – and will be – providing the overwhelming percentage of funds for vaccine research, trials and manufacturing, they can be in the driver’s seat if they want to be,” Global Access to Medicines Campaigner James Love of Knowledge Ecology International told Green World in an interview from Washington, DC. 

New York social distancing
Social distancing in a New York park.

The UK Government has, for example, donated £250 million to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), one of the leading vaccine funding groups, in recent months.

Powerful opponents to the Costa Rican/WHO vaccine proposal are definitely lying in wait in the proverbial bushes. 

CEPI opposes the Costa Rican patent pool proposal. As reported exclusively here on 7 May, Richard Wilder said this proposal was “not effective and not necessary” and that pharmaceutical companies, biotech firms and academic labs would refuse to share their vaccine technologies and scientific processes in the pool. Wilder is CEPI’s general legal counsel and director of business development of this private-public consortium. 

The UK Government is also an intellectual property “fundamentalist” when it comes to pharmaceutical patents. And yet, it has added its name to the WHO vaccine proposal. 

Obviously, some treacherous waters ahead to roll out a globally accessible vaccine.  

Locking down mentally is not an option

But it was the United States and its president, Donald Trump, that was most vociferous this week in its opposition to the WHO in general and this Covid-19 vaccine plan in particular. 

Its main ground for opposition to share was over the need, it claimed, to maintain intellectual property exclusivity for any vaccine. (Its second ground, it should be noted, was that the US “did not accept references to ‘sexual and reproductive health’” in the language of the proposal.) 

Meanwhile, Trump was trying “to deflect blame” for his own hugely fatal and botched response to the Covid-19 crisis in his country and threatened again to permanently freeze US funding to the WHO, a United Nations agency. 

The WHO is certainly not without fault for its handling of this pandemic. But week after week, it is becoming increasingly difficult to take seriously the ravings of a man who suggested a month ago that injecting bleach was one possible way to cure coronavirus, who this week topped that by saying it was “a badge of honour” that the US has the highest number of coronavirus cases (and deaths) in the world and, even more astoundingly let us know – as if we cared – that he was personally taking the potentially lethal anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine. (South London GP Dr Rosemary explains what a daft and dangerous idea that is.

But it is daft and dangerous to ignore someone who is the most powerful man in the world, is Commander in Chief of the world’s most lethal armed forces, is prepared to prevent millions getting access to a life-saving vaccine, is facing re-election this November, and is, week after week, solidifying himself as the global poster boy of vaccine conspiracy theorists, knownothing-ists, climate change deniers, capitalist reaction, and far right extremism. 

In such circumstances, locking down mentally in your house or flat is not an option. To coin a phrase, STAY ALERT. 

Alan Story is a retired reader in Intellectual Property Law and a member of the Green Party in Sheffield.