World Health Assembly negotiators have agreed on a draft resolution that ensures countries can navigate patent rights for Covid-19 medical products, a victory for those supporting wider access to drugs, diagnostics, and vaccines.
Although the language could still change before a Monday deadline, the document mentions a voluntary pool, which would collect patent rights, regulatory test data, and other information that could be shared for developing medical products. The European Union last month asked the assembly, which is the governing body of the World Health Organization, to adopt the idea, and WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has already voiced support.
At the same time, the draft reiterates the rights that countries have to issue so-called compulsory licenses to obtain lower-cost products. Under a World Trade Organization agreement, governments may grant a license to a public agency or a company, allowing it to copy a patented medicine without the consent of the patent holder.
The draft resolution “does not create new rights” for countries, “but the mention of them is important. And the mention of the pooling mechanism is also important,” explained Ellen ‘t Hoen, a senior researcher in the global health unit at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands and a former executive director of the Medicines Patent Pool, which licenses treatments from drug makers.
By noting both of these issues, the negotiators are effectively siding with a growing number of countries — and not just poor countries — that are increasingly anxious that access to medical products needed to blunt or defeat the pandemic will be out of their reach. The voluntary pool was proposed only a few weeks ago by Costa Rican officials.
The use of compulsory licensing, in particular, has often been a flashpoint between the pharmaceutical industry and low- and middle-income countries. And the pandemic has ratcheted up concern. Several countries — Canada, Germany, Israel, Ecuador, Brazil, and Chile, to name a few — have moved in recent weeks to make it easier to issue licenses in the quest for lower-cost Covid-19 medical products.
The U.S., however, has been pushing back on the use of compulsory licensing, according to sources familiar with the negotiations. Successive administrations have regularly been aligned with drug makers when it comes to concerns over intellectual property rights. Each year, for instance, the U.S. trade representative issues a report castigating a long list of countries.
The U.S. and a few other countries were able to reduce the pressure to allow open licensing of intellectual property, according to Jamie Love of Knowledge Ecology International, an advocacy group that tracks patents and access to medicines issues. An open license would not create a monopoly on a product, he explained, and manufacturing would not be restricted to certain companies. Consequently, he finds the resolution “pretty disappointing, given the massive impact of the pandemic on the whole world.”
The move by the U.S. comes as the White House tries to ensure Americans are first in line for Covid-19 products. Recently, for instance, the Trump administration reportedly tried to persuade CureVac, a German vaccine maker, to move research to the U.S.
Love argued there is a distinction between protecting your own population and using intellectual property rights to try to prevent other countries from manufacturing their own needed products.
“It’s one thing for a country to use its economic clout to buy preferential access to drugs or vaccines. It’s another to prevent others from manufacturing and expanding global supply,” he told us. “Hoarding intellectual property for medicine in a pandemic is the behavior of a sociopath.”