With the mounting global death toll, with confirmed infections of over 3.6 million and continuing to climb, with no known effective vaccine and just the beginnings of finding possible therapies to reduce the severity or length of illness from the infection, it is clear to most that there is no full return to normalcy until effective vaccines are developed and made available to all in the world community. Because the costs to the global economy from the pandemic are measured in trillions of dollars and job losses in the hundreds of millions, there is a global urgency to advance medical solutions, despite a history with prior infectious disease outbreaks which would suggest that solutions could be years away.
The severity of the pandemic has led to some extraordinary efforts to have international organizations, pharmaceutical companies, universities and government labs work collaboratively and share data. There have also been a wide range of statements made by international organizations such as the World Health Organization, governments, NGOs, and the pharmaceutical industry that diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines developed to address the COVID-19 pandemic must be developed on an expedited basis, be available equitably and be affordable. The phrase “no one is safe until everyone is safe” sums up what many leaders are saying is the goal.
Many countries with a pharmaceutical industry, university research center invloved in medical research, government agency that addresses disease control and prevention or the safety of medical supplies are engaged in research that may be company specific, university or lab specific or collaborative within the country and across countries. Governments are providing substantial financial assistance to spur research and development.
With the various infectious disease outbreaks of the last few decades, there are also groups which focus on improving the healthcare infrastructure in developing countries and least developed countries and in working to get needed tests, medicines and vaccines to countries unable to address such needs on their own. Groups like CEPI, GAVI, FIND, UNITAID are involved and are supported by the generosity of various governments and other organizations. They are all actively engaged in the response to COVID- 19.
The G20 countries issued a statement on COVID-19 after an Extraordinary G20 Leaders’ Summit on March 26, 2020 which stated in part,
“We further commit to work together to increase research and development funding for vaccines and medicines, leverage digital technologies, and strengthen scientific international cooperation. We will bolster our coordination, including with the private sector, towards rapid development, manufacturing and distribution of diagnostics, antiviral medicines, and vaccines, adhering to the objectives of efficacy, safety, equity, accessibility, and affordability.”
The G20 presidency on April 24, 2020 noted its support of the Access to COVID-19 Tools (“ACT”) Accelerator whose purpose is to speed development, production and equitable distribution of new COVID-19 diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines. The initial cost estimate for the early research and development efforts was estimated at $8 billion. The statement is embedded below
European Union led initiative to obtain pledges for $8 billion
The European Union and a number of individual countries co-led an international pledging event, the Coronavirus Global Response, on May 4 which developed pledges of 7.4 billion Euros ($8 billion) The countries co-leading with the EU were France, Germany, Japan, Norway, Canada, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen moderated the event. Her opening statement is below and reflects the reality that “we will have to learn to live with the virus – until and unless we develop a vaccine”. Collaboration is critical and the objective is to see that vaccines, diagnostics and treatments against coronavirus are deployed “to every single corner of the world. And we must ensure that they are available and affordable for all.” https://ec.europa.eu/
Besides comments from the EC’s president, other speakers included leaders from the European Council; the United Nations; the UN World Health Organization; France; Germany; Japan; Norway; Canada; Spain; United Kingdom; Saudi Arabia (2020 G20 Presidency); Jordan; South Africa (on behalf of African Union); Monaco; Turkey; Italy; Switzerland; Israel; the Netherlands; the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; Luxembourg; Sweden; Portugal; Croatia; Estonia; the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board; Bulgaria; Ireland; Serbia; Czechia (for itself, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland); Poland; Australia; Denmark; Greece; Austria; Malta; Belgium; Wellcome Trust; Latvia; South Korea; Mexico (for Latin America); Kuwait; Slovenia; Lithuania; Oman; Romania; Finland; United Arab Emirates; China; World Economic Forum; European Investment Bank; World Bank; CEPI (Coalition for Epedemic Preparedness Innovations); GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance; FIND (Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics); UNITAID; IFPMA (International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations), and the DCVMN (Developing Countries Vaccine Manufacturers Network).
The pledging event goes on through the month of May. The kick-off event lasted just under three hours. The list of speakers was impressive covering international organizations, countries (from Europe; parts of Asia, North America and the Middle East; and South Africa), NGOs, philanthropic groups, pharmaceutical companies.
The message from all was fairly uniform – collaboration is crucial to speed the findings of solutions; solutions must be available to all on an equitable basis that is affordable. The $8 billion is simply the first step in a much larger endeavor once new diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines are found and one turns to the need for broad production and distribution.
Press accounts have raised questions about some of the countries which did not participate in the May 4th event – the United States, Russian Federation, India, Brazil to name four countries with active pharmaceutical industries — and with whether the pledges largely reflect expenditures already made or committed versus new commitments. For many of the no shows (and for China which was apparently a late addition and only from the Ambassador to the European Union), important pharmaceutical companies were represented by either IFPMA or by DCVMN. Moreover, there is yet time to join. And these countries all have their own research underway which is generally being done in a collaborative effort within country or with others and are making data available to other players.
There is little doubt that the pharmaceutical companies, the university research centers, and the government labs will be important players in the research and development stage. Consider the following document from IFPMA which reviews how major pharmaceutical companies are engaged in various segments of the R&D effort. IFPMA reviews how its member companies are engaged in (1) repurposing existing and testing new treatments, (2) sharing real-time trial data with governments and other companies; (3) speeding up R&D on safe and effective vaccines; (4) developing diagnostic testing and securing supply; (5) securing essential supplies for medicines and vaccines; (6) increasing and sharing capacity for medicines and vaccines; and (7) supporting global health care systems. See https://www.ifpma.org/print/?
Will a global solution available to all present challenges for holders of intellectual property?
There are billions of dollars being spent by private companies, by research universities, government labs, and various NGOs, philanthropic groups and others in the global race to develop new diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines. Much of the money spent will not result in effective solutions. Some, hopefully, will. Patent rights will arise for those developing the new products and there will thus be questions about how the new products can be made available to all at affordable prices.
Some individuals and companies may make any breakthroughs they are responsible for available to all at no cost (we have seen some of that in the past on medicines and recently on PPE products).
It is also the case, that governments can invoke exceptions to patent rights under certain circumstances and subject to certain limitations. See TRIPS Art. 31 (compulsory licensing).
Some governments (e.g., France) at the pledging event recognized the need to see that the innovators received a fair return on their investment, but also characterized COVID-19 products as “public goods”. The IFPMA in its activities has joined collaborative undertakings and has recognized the need for new diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines to be available to all at affordable prices. But it is unclear what that means to the company or companies who develop a breakthrough product in terms of patent rights and revenues.
While the U.S. pharmaceutical industry has indicated that they are working with governments and insurers to see that new drugs and vaccines are available to all and affordable, they also have a blog post on the continued importance of intellectual property for pharmaceutical companies ability to tackle COVID-10. See The Catalyst, What they are saying: Intellectual property protections are critical as we work to defeat COVID-19, https://catalyst.phrma.org/
With possible breakthroughs in the next six months or so, how this important trade aspect of rewarding innovation in the fight against COVID-19 plays out could complicate or simplify the core desire of getting effective solutions to all at affordable prices.
Other trade issues
There are already efforts underway to get WTO Members to eliminate customs duties on medical supplies needed to address COVID-19. If not already covered by that effort, one would think it would be doable to get WTO Members to agree to trade any new diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines for treating COVID-19 as duty-free articles (and presumably add the inputs to such new products).
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