COVID vaccine patent battle has a disturbing parallel in HIV drugs

In 1998, the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association of South Africa joined forces with 39 pharmaceutical companies to sue the government of Nelson Mandela for suspending international trade agreements that protected patents for HIV drugs. .

At the time of the lawsuit, an estimated one in nine South Africans was already living with HIV, and the cost of providing the patented drug was largely beyond the reach of the country’s 4.7 million people. this.

Defending its decision to bypass the WTO contract protect intellectual property, Nelson Mandela speak in a television interview: “I think pharmaceuticals are exploiting the situation that exists in countries like South Africa – a developing country – because they charge exorbitant prices beyond the means of people living with HIV/AIDS That’s completely wrong and should be condemned.”

Mandela continued: “The government has every right, in that situation, to use generic drugs and taking the government to court is a big mistake for the pharmaceutical companies.”

In deciding to ignore patent law, Mandela made the moral decision that saving lives was more important than protecting private property rights. Pharmaceutical companies argue to the contrary that if developing countries can effectively steal their drugs, they will have less incentive to research new drugs in the future that could save lives. million people.

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23 years later, history is repeating itself. In October 2020, South Africa and India found that a large number of pre-purchase agreements for a COVID-19 vaccine were being negotiated by rich countries, meaning that they would receive the vaccine first. . Two countries have gone to the World Trade Organization and requested that the patenting of all drugs and technologies related to COVID be suspended, so that the developing world can produce its own vaccines without must depend on funding from COVAX or funding from rich countries. .

Turns out they were right to worry. According to New York Times COVID data followers, 74% of all COVID-19 vaccines are shipped to high- and middle-income countries, while less than 1% go to low-income countries. Than booster shot were given in rich countries compared with single injections given in poor countries. Meanwhile, lower middle-income countries have suffered the highest estimated surpluses mortality from virus.

The Pharmaceutical Corridor immediately opposed the proposal of South Africa and India. Among their arguments is that even if they give up their patents, there aren’t enough manufacturers in the developing world to produce vaccines – and, they argue that even if there were , it will take a long time to transfer the necessary technology to bring them up. and run. That may not be true: this week, Doctors Without Borders determined 120 manufacturers in Asia, Africa and Latin America with the technical requirements and quality standards required to produce mRNA vaccines.

But putting aside the technical arguments of who-can-do, the bigger question is not who is allowed to make the vaccine – but who owns it in the first place. .

The COVID vaccines used in high-income countries are developed largely – in some cases entirely – with state funding. The AstraZeneca vaccine was invented at the Jenner Institute at the University of Oxford with 99% public funding. Moderna received 100% funding for the vaccine from Operation Warp Speed, and the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine received nearly half a billion dollars in funding from the German government. Pharmaceutical companies have also invested huge sums of their own money in vaccine development, without which they would not be able to produce vaccines so quickly.

But let’s assume that the public invests nothing, and that only a handful of multinational pharmaceutical companies take the risk and invest millions of dollars in vaccine development. It is certain that the pharmaceutical companies are rewarded for their investment and the excellent service they are providing to mankind by providing lifesaving drugs.

But how much should that reward be? Is a few million enough? What about a few billion? Pfizer Says It Will Earn $33.5 Billion revenue from its vaccine sales this year. Even after scrapping a portion that drug companies say will be reinvested in developing new drugs, Pfizer shareholders still have billions of dollars to line up for their Christmas season.

Western society has long respected the right to private property; As the old saying goes, possession accounts for 9/10 of the provisions of the law. Pharmaceutical companies clearly have the right to sell their assets – in this case vaccines – to whomever they want and for whatever price they see fit. However, Western societies are also governed by Enlightenment principles, including the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” So what happens when these rights are cut? Does someone’s right to “live” mean they have the right to take someone else’s private property? Representatives from the pharmaceutical lobby would likely say no, while global health advocates would likely say yes.

Since I was home alone with my eight year old daughter and was trying to avoid watching the first Harry Potter movie for the hundredth time, I decided to turn her attention away from the TV by asking her if she would solve the problem. How to resolve this ethical dilemma? She replied in typical childhood fashion: “The pharmaceutical companies are not very good, and if sick people need vaccines, they should go to the police and ask the pharmaceutical companies to supply them with vaccines. .” I suppose any daughter of a left-leaning journalist would be able to give a similar answer to this difficult ethical question, but I’d love to hear what the kids of Pfizer C-Suite would answer. how.

Children are often quite good at answering nuanced black and white philosophical questions. Voldemort is bad, Harry Potter is good. Murder is wrong, as is stealing Mommy’s white chocolate bar. The public has invested billions of dollars. Millions of lives are at stake along with hopes and dreams of a return to “a normal way of life.” If pharmaceutical companies are robbed of the rights to their own assets to COVID-19 vaccines, who can say the same won’t happen to HIV or diabetes drugs.

Fortunately for policymakers, their jobs are not currently threatened by primary school-age children. But delegates at the WTO are being asked essentially the same question, only with more nuance that could easily deflect the central question of how should the global community organize itself in response to the situation. public health emergency. More than a year has passed since the WTO panel responsible for intellectual property agreements was asked to consider South Africa and India’s proposal to give up intellectual property rights. So far nothing tangible has happened. If delegates don’t know what to do about waivers, perhaps they can turn to their children for advice, as their moral compass is preferable.

Another interesting question to ask their children is how much money should one give to pharmaceutical companies in exchange for using vaccines and providing them to poor countries. My daughter said: “Maybe like five or ten euros.” For her that was a lot of money.

Read more from Charlotte Kilpatrick: COVID vaccine patent battle has a disturbing parallel in HIV drugs

Caroline Bleakley

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