science

WHO platform for pharmaceutical firms unused since pandemic began


A World Health Organization program for pharmaceutical companies to voluntarily share Covid-19 related knowledge, treatments and technology so they can be more widely distributed has attracted zero contributions in the eight months since it was established, the Guardian has learned.

The Covid-19 technology access pool (C-Tap) was launched in May last year to facilitate the sharing of patent-protected information to fight the virus, including diagnostics, therapeutics and trial data. The “pooling” of treatments and data would allow qualified manufacturers from around the world to produce critical equipment, drugs or vaccines without fear of prosecution for breaching patents.

The goal would be to lower production costs, ease global shortages of key drugs and technology and, advocates say, ultimately end the pandemic sooner.

Consultations have been held in recent months including in the UK to persuade pharmaceutical companies to engage with the pool, but as of January no technology or treatments have been shared, a WHO spokesman confirmed to the Guardian.

“C-Tap is an innovative initiative and has potential for the middle to longer term, but we were aware from the outset that it would take greater efforts and a longer timeframe to bring the different interest groups together,” a WHO spokesman said.

Other global-access initiatives such as Covax, a vaccine-sharing scheme, were being relied on “to deliver results more rapidly”, he added.

Another United Nations-backed patent-sharing platform, the medicines patent pool (MPP), widened its mandate last year to include Covid-19 treatments, but it too has so far not negotiated any deals for drugs, data or technology to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

Charles Gore, the executive director of the MPP, said the lack of engagement was symbolic of a widespread failure to tackle the pandemic in a global way. “Unfortunately what we’ve seen is too little of, ‘Let’s do this all together as a world’, and a little too much of me-first,” Gore said.

He said the pharmaceutical industry was following the lead of governments, who have sought to strike their own deals for vaccines, technology and treatments rather than prioritise global distribution.

“That means inevitably that industry is also having to respond to that,” Gore said. “If countries are saying the most important thing is, ‘I want you to do a deal now with me’, the companies can’t say, ‘We’ll come back to you later, we’re trying to do a deal for global access’.”

Thomas Cueni, the director of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations, a lobby group for the industry, said patent rights were “the engine that has fuelled groundbreaking research and development” including the record-fast delivery of several safe Covid-19 vaccines. “Circumventing IP rights will not solve perceived access challenges,” Cueni said in an email.

He pointed to several examples of companies entering into specific agreements to improve global access including AstraZeneca’s licensing deal that allows the Serum Institute of India, one of the largest vaccine manufacturers in the world, to produce billions of doses.

Moderna, another vaccine developer, has agreed not to enforce its patent for the course of the pandemic – though medical rights groups say this pledge has little value unless it also transfers the technology used to produce its mRNA vaccine, something C-Tap was designed to facilitate.

But others said this piecemeal approach to global access had contributed to shortages of lifesaving technology and treatments, scarcities that would also mark the rollout of vaccines until at least 2023, according to one analysis.

The WHO director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, warned on Monday the world was on the brink of “catastrophic moral failure” in the distribution of vaccines, with mostly wealthy countries hoarding much of the supplies that will be produced in 2021.

Ellen ‘t Hoen, a medical IP expert and campaigner, said wealthy governments around the world had poured billions of taxpayer dollars into developing vaccines that would be ultimately owned and controlled by companies and their shareholders.

“The companies raked in billions in public money and are now making the same statements we’ve heard for the past 30 years … that IP is the underpinning of innovation,” she said.

“But the underpinning of innovation for Covid-19 is the massive public financing, and now that public financing is being privatised through the IP system – and that’s something C-Tap could have prevented.”

India and South Africa are leading a push at the World Trade Organization to allow countries not to prosecute patent breaches on Covid-19 vaccines, treatment and data for the course of the pandemic. It has been opposed by countries including the US, UK and Australia, who have cited the existence of patent-sharing schemes such as C-Tap and the MPP to argue against waiving patent rights across the board.

Gore said sharing technology or treatments could cost companies profits, and was not always simple, but that there could be a reputation price for not doing so once the pandemic ended and businesses were scrutinised for the role they played.

“Companies are going to be judged after the event on how well they’ve done on this,” he said. “You don’t want to find as a company that you did this all wrong and investors are saying, ‘We don’t want to touch you’.”



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