Pharma continues to lie about the necessity of vaccine patents – don’t be fooled

Fifa A Rahman

Fifa A Rahman MHL (Health Law), PhD is the Permanent NGO Representative to the ACT Accelerator (Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator) and Special Advisor to Health Poverty Action in the UK. She teaches patent law seminars at the University of Leeds, and is Founder and Principal Consultant at Matahari Global Solutions, a research and policy group focused on delivering local relevance into global health issues.

It’s an interesting time for intellectual property (IP) rights. Last week, we here in the UK watched with more than a little bemusement as M&S took to the High Court to protest its ownership of a decorated swiss roll – the ubiquitous Colin the Caterpillar, decades-old star of children’s parties and coffee mornings, ostensibly to head off an Aldi off-brand version for charity – despite the cake already being replicated by just about every supermarket.

The case might seem silly, but it does raise an important point about IP rights – who should control the rights to something that everyone wants or needs? As we watch the great cake debate, we are in the midst of the biggest health challenge the world has faced in decades, where control of IP is playing a quiet but insidious role in holding back faster vaccination across the world.

For years, the pharmaceutical industry has consistently held up patents as key to innovation, endlessly repeating its mantra that high prices are necessary due to the costs of research and development. This is not true – we’ve seen it proven time and again that patents do not create innovation, but stifle it. In recent years, we’ve seen the number of patents skyrocket, but the number of new medical breakthroughs drop. The hoarding and ‘evergreening’ of patents serve to slow all further R&D on medicines in favour of selling existing medicines at vastly inflated prices, and continue to profit for years.

We cannot allow the same to happen in the face of COVID-19. Already, access to coronavirus vaccines is massively divided – 83% of vaccinations so far have taken place in high-income countries. Just 0.2% have taken place in lower-income nations. People around the world are waiting for their shot and if we keep producing doses at the level we are, there won’t be enough to go around for years.

Make no mistake, the situation is becoming dire. All this week, India has set and then broken new grim records for new cases, now numbering more than 350,000 a day. Hospitals around the country are at the point of overwhelm. There is a grisly irony that the biggest vaccine-manufacturing plant in the world, the Serum Institute – supplying vast quantities of vaccines to high-income nations – is located in Pune, Maharashtra. Some of these nations already have enough doses to cover their population several times over.

If nothing else, the vaccines are not pharma’s to own. Recent research has uncovered that as much as 97% of the money that led to the development of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine that has been administered to millions of people in more than 130 countries was not put up by the pharma industry, but in fact by public funding. That costs must be kept high to offset some vast investment by pharmaceutical companies is a myth.

We cannot afford to keep throttling access to necessary medication so that a handful of private enterprises can count up the cash, while countless lives hang in the balance. We’ve seen it play out before across the decades, from HIV to TB. The end result is always more people dying.

Protecting IP doesn’t lead to more scientific breakthroughs – it leads to more profit. Those are not the same thing. To return to our earlier Caterpillar cake story – the final outcome of more manufacturers making cakes is that more people get to have cakes, not crumbs. And when it comes to saving lives, everyone deserves a fair slice of the public investment in science.