Researchers Reveal Strategies Used by Big Pharma to Monopolize COVID-19 Drugs and Vaccines

Pharmaceutical companies took advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic, ensuring maximum profits and monopolies on life-saving vaccines and drugs, according to research released this week. One of the approaches pursued was filing multiple patents on the same technology, a practice known as evergreening.

A team of four independent researchers and two experts on access to medicines from Make Medicines Affordable Campaign led by International Treatment Preparedness Coalition (ITPC) analyzed the extension of patent monopolies for COVID-19 vaccines and treatments through  patent evergreening. Their article, titled “Unveiling Patenting Strategies of Therapeutics and Vaccines: Evergreening in the Context of COVID-19 Pandemic,” was published by Frontiers, one of the world’s leading science journals.

The research reveals that pharmaceutical companies and academic institutions filed a total of 73 PCT patent applications to maintain their monopolies on selected drugs and vaccines, even during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. Of those, 29 patent applications were for antiviral drugs, three applications were for a biologic product, and 41 applications were for vaccines.

“Our study shows that multiple patent applications get more complex when it comes to vaccines. This highlights the importance of taking a public health approach in patent examination,” said the paper’s lead researchers Maria Lorena Bacigalupo, Maria Florencia Pignataro, and Carolinne Thays Scopel in a joint statement.

Evergreening encompasses a range of legal, technological, and business practices applied to extend monopoly protection on existing products prior to patent expiry, in order for companies to delay generic and biosimilar competition and continue profiting. Filing several patent applications related to the same active pharmaceutical ingredient  is a common method of evergreening.

This research reveals how pharmaceutical companies and academic institutions filed multiple patent applications through the international PCT system intending to secure monopoly on medical technologies useful for COVID-19. If these applications reach the national level in low- and middle-income countries (LMIC), further challenges might be faced by the governments in ensuring sustainable access to these technologies.    

“Governments, communities, and civil society organizations have witnessed the impacts of evergreening over the last 25 years, as it has led to continued inaccessibility of medicines and other treatments, which were sold at astronomically high prices in some cases” the authors stated.

Pharmaceutical companies have extensively used evergreening to maintain monopolies on medical products and delay price lowering generic competition. This has been evident over the past three decades with HIV antiretrovirals, direct-acting antivirals for hepatitis C virus, and cancer.

One of the challenges for governments, potential alternative manufacturers and civil society is to know the landscape of patents that apply for a particular technology. This research has highlighted a time lag between the speed of the new technologies being launched and the patent applications being made public, creating an uncertainty about the patent situation for specific technologies.   

The research also highlighted that new patent applications were filed for known drugs to treat Covid-19. Remdesivir, molnupiravir, and sarilumab were repurposed and approved to treat COVID-19 during the pandemic. The companies pursued new patent applications for this medical indication. There were 12, six, and three PCT applications filed respectively. These applications were made between 2007 and 2022 with the last application for each drug expected to subsequently expire after 33, 27, and 34 years of monopoly if filed and granted in countries.

These intense patent filings, as research shows, may also prevent other institutions from undertaking research and development activities on the same drugs.

The Make Medicines Affordable campaign has long advocated for accessible and affordable COVID-19 treatments for everyone, regardless of where they live, to achieve equitable access to life-saving medicines.

Othman Mellouk, Access to Diagnostics and Medicines Lead of ITPC stated: “This research aligns with the Make Medicines Affordable campaign, because it contributes to bringing transparency to one of abusive pharmaceutical patenting strategies, and works to address the complex issues that affect access, in order to translate science into concrete actions regarding patent barriers on health technologies.”