As the novel coronavirus continues to spread, Ecuador has become the latest country in which lawmakers are looking to issue compulsory licenses for medicines and vaccines to combat Covid-19 and ensure their citizens have access to any medical products.
Late last week, a committee in the National Assembly approved a resolution asking the Minister of Health to issue licenses that would allow the government to sidestep patents related to Covid-19 medical technologies. The resolution would also have the health minister ask the World Health Organization to collect R&D information related to any products.
“This resolution is a clear example of the provisions of a (government code), which establishes the need to weigh intellectual property rights with fundamental rights, to guarantee an adequate balance between owners and users,” according to Hernan Nunez, the executive director of the Ecuadoran Institute for Intellectual Property, a government agency, and who is also a researcher at the University of Alcala.
“If in situations like the current one, the intellectual property system cannot provide solutions for the benefit of the population, we should necessarily rethink the model,” he wrote in a blog posted by Knowledge Ecology International, an advocacy group that examines patent and access to medicines issues, and first reported the resolution.
We asked the Association of Latin American Pharmaceutical Laboratories in Ecuador for comment and will update you accordingly.
This marks the third time in the past week that a government officials or lawmakers in a country have taken steps to issue a compulsory license in response to Covid-19. Last week, Chile’s lower house of Congress passed nearly unanimously a resolution that would permit the government to issue compulsory licenses for any medicines, vaccines, or diagnostics for combating the pandemic.
And the Israeli government approved a license to purchase a generic copy of the Kaletra HIV pill after speculation rose the drug could be used to combat the coronavirus, even though a paper published a few days earlier in the New England Journal of Medicine raised doubts about its effectiveness to do so. AbbVie (ABBV), which makes the pill, responded by waiving worldwide restrictions on licenses held by a nonprofit.
As noted previously, the move comes against a backdrop of mounting angst over the rising cost of medicines, which has prompted a growing number of countries to consider the use of compulsory licenses.
A country may grant such a license to a public agency or a generic drug maker, allowing it to copy a patented medicine without the consent of the brand-name company that owns the patent. This right was memorialized in a section of a World Trade Organization agreement known as the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, or TRIPS (here is a primer).
The move toward licensing in some countries is not new. Across the globe, a growing number of cash-strapped governments are grappling with the rising cost of medicines, which has prompted increased interest in licensing. Among those exploring licensing has been Colombia, Peru, Malaysia, and The Netherlands.
For their part, drug makers argue licensing eviscerates patent rights and have successfully lobbied U.S. officials over the years to lean on countries that have pursued or considered licensing. The U.S. Trade Representative, for instance, has regularly cited countries in an annual report that looks at intellectual property rights. Last year, Ecuador was one of more than two dozen countries on a watch list (see page 10).
As we explained last week, the issue may take on an added urgency now, though, in the wake of Covid-19 amid concerns that a therapy or vaccine might be priced out of reach for any number of people. And one expert believes alternative suppliers will answer the call.
“The more countries issue compulsory licenses or prepare themselves to issue compulsory licenses, the more likely” we will see companies attempt to meet demand, according to Ken Shadlen, a political scientist at the London School of Economics, who studies the global pharmaceutical industry and patent issues
“And related to this, I happen to think that’s why (pharmaceutical industry trade groups) are so opposed to compulsory licensing, anywhere and at any time, because if there is global demand for drugs from alternative suppliers, then those alternative suppliers might materialize,” he wrote us.