Intellectual property is not a hindrance but a help to end Covid-19

We must not send the wrong message to pharma companies that have taken huge risks

A clinical trial of a potential vaccine for Covid-19 © Ted S. Warren/AP

Thomas Cueni 6 HOURS AGO

As we confront an unprecedented public health, social and economic crisis brought about by Covid-19, our hopes are pinned on scientific innovation and, in particular, potential treatments and vaccines.

While we have good reason to hope science will prevail, there is understandable concern about how the fruits of innovation will be shared equitably and whether the pharmaceuticals industry can be trusted to put public health ahead of private profits. Some point to previous pandemics and warn that, unless deliberate steps are taken, the most vulnerable people will be left out.

Academics including Mariana Mazzucato at University College London and Ellen ‘t Hoen at Groningen university are bringing to the fore a longstanding argument about intellectual property and innovative pharmaceutical products. The contention is that if the inventor’s IP rights were waived in a public health emergency, this would increase access to medicines and vaccines. The pharmaceutical industry holds the contrary view that IP is not a hindrance but a help to contain and end Covid-19.

Last month, Francis Gurry, director-general of the World Intellectual Property Organisation, a UN body, said that “there does not appear to be any evidence that IP is a barrier to access to vital medical preventive measures, such as vaccines, or to treatments or cures”.

For the past three months, both public and private scientists, and pharma businesses have pulled out all the stops, pushing the boundaries of science, developing workable solutions and ensuring there is capacity to scale up eventual treatments or vaccines, while ensuring continuity of global supply of the critical medicines and vaccines already on offer.

Now, of all times, is not the moment to undermine IP. It would create uncertainty and send the wrong message to pharma companies that have taken risks on huge investments to repurpose medicines for Covid-19 treatment and scale up manufacturing. Patents, and IP more generally, are the main reason that there is such a strong innovation base to work from to find solutions. Today there are more than 1,000 clinical trials ongoing, over 150 treatments being tested, and more than 120 vaccine projects. There is no guarantee of success as few treatments and even fewer vaccines may prove to be safe and effective. This level of risk-taking would be impossible without a flourishing innovation ecosystem built on strong IP incentives.

There will be much talk of creating an IP-free space to respond to Covid-19 around the World Health Assembly in Geneva on May 18-19. But such ideas miss the more important challenge, which is that demand for treatments could outstrip supply should the results of clinical trials prove positive. This is why companies are already exploring collaborations and voluntary licences to ramp up capacity. The creation of yet another “patent pool” would be a waste of time and resources. Such an initiative already exists in the form of the Medicines Patent Pool along with bilateral licensing agreements.

The pharmaceutical industry draws a line at an open-access platform to enforce worldwide open-licence agreements for Covid-19 vaccines and treatments. This
could significantly undermine trust in a predictable IP framework just when the industry is doing all it can, spending billions upfront with no guarantee of success. It has signed up to the World Health Organization’s Access to Covid-19 Tools Accelerator, committing to accelerate development, production and equitable global access to safe, effective and affordable therapeutics and vaccines with the belief that it is the right thing to do.

In the fight against Covid-19, we must ensure no one is left behind. In turn, the innovative pharma industry asks to be judged on the basis of its deeds. Let science and collaboration prevail.

The writer is director-general of International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020. All rights reserved.

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