Gates Foundation: Technology Transfer, Not Patents Is Main Roadblock To Expanding Vaccine Production

Patents are not the main roadblock to producing enough coronavirus vaccines for the world – rather the challenge is technology transfer with manufacturers, said a top official at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) on Wednesday. 

His comments joined those of pharma voices in what seems to be a growing counter-trend to that of civil society advocates who say that intellectual property (IP) monopolies are blocking the rapid scale-up of manufacturing. 

Speaking at an event sponsored by the Geneva Graduate Institute’s Global Health Center, Chris Elias also said that the Foundation is presently working on a number of new tech transfer agreements to expand vaccine manufacturing in low- and middle-income countries – which have not yet been made public. 

“I don’t want to say patents are never the problem, but I think the bigger problem in vaccines is how do we get as many of these tech transfers so that we can get high quality, low cost vaccine at scale as soon as possible,” said Elias, President of the Foundation’s Global Development Division. 

“As we’ve been working with the vaccine companies, now, the challenge seems to be more about the tech transfer, the rapid scale-up, the capacity for producing vaccines,” he said at the webinar on “Public and private responsibilities in COVID-19”. 

“We are actually supporting a range of different tech transfer efforts,” said Elias. “We are working on other tech transfer agreements that are just not ready to be announced yet.”

The Foundation played an important role in mediating the successful licensing deal for the AstraZeneca vaccine with one of the world’s vaccine manufacturing powerhouses – India’s Serum Institute – which has enabled hundreds of millions of doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to be produced for the world. 

“We were able [with] Gavi to move quickly with Serum Institute of India because it is such a large scale and well established partner of COVAX, but it’s not exclusive in any regard,” Elias noted. 

Gates Was Not Part Of Oxford-AstraZeneca Decision To Exclusively License Vaccine Technology

Chris Elias, President of the Foundation’s Global Development Division.

But Elias denied that Gates had played a role in Oxford University’s decision to exclusively license its vaccine technology to AstraZeneca, instead of sharing the vaccine recipe openly – a  decision that has come under intense fire from vaccine access advocates.

“We were not part of the individual licensing agreements, I’d have to defer to Oxford. We weren’t a part of those negotiations between them and AstraZeneca,” he said.

Rather, he said that the Gates Foundation tried to help Oxford University “align” with pharma  companies that could ensure its technology could be brought to scale.  

“No university is positioned to start making billions of doses of vaccine,” said Elias. “In my experience of 20 plus years, every case where a university has found a new innovation they have to have a partnership with pharma to get to scale.”

“There were a number of organizations including the Gates Foundation that had discussions with Oxford. And they discussed the importance of aligning with a multinational company in order to ensure that they could bring their innovation to scale and benefit humanity.”

Waiving Intellectual Property Is Not Way Forward, Says Elias

With regards to the proposed World Trade Organization waiver of IP rules under the WTO’s  Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement, Elias expressed skepticism, noting that the Foundation “hasn’t been very involved” in those discussions.   

“It could be debated whether waiving TRIPS is going to get you there faster so I think we really want to focus on what can we do now to secure as much supply for the the advanced market commitment and COVAX for vaccines,” he said, referring to the WHO co-sponsored global vaccine facility. “I’m not aware that we’ve used our voice to try and influence people’s position on that [the WTO waiver].”

And although he acknowledged that mechanisms like the WHO’s proposed COVID-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP), to share intellectual property for COVID-19 health technologies, may be “useful” at some point, he argued that it is not needed at this moment. 

“It’s not correct to say that we’re not in favor of it [CTAP],” he said. “I think it’s a useful mechanism…If a patent proved to be the obstacle, C-TAP or some other mechanism could be part of the solution….In our experience, patents haven’t been so much the problem,” Elias  said. 

“The real issue is to “build more manufacturing capacity”, he said, “that’s a different kind of problem that’s not going to be solved by C-TAP, so we’re not opposed to C-TAP [but] it’s just not in our experience the solution we need at this moment.”

Beyond IP and even vaccine technology know-how, there are many other bottlenecks to expanding manufacturing capacity, like high-quality medical glass, which is currently in shortage, Elias stressed. 

WHO DG Asserts That IP Waiver Is Relevant  

Meanwhile, in a parallel forum underway Wednesday at the WTO, the WHO Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus outlined a countervailing view that a proposed WTO waiver of COVID-related IP could expedite the sharing of know-how and technologies – stating that the WHO’s C-TAP IP pool may be immediately relevant.

The closed door WTO meeting brought together leading pharma manufacturers, banking officials and health ministers to discuss WTO Director General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s proposed “Third Way” to expand access through more voluntary licensing to manufacturing companies in LMICs. 

“This is an unprecedented emergency that demands unprecedented measures,” Tedros said at the high-level forum, including representatives from Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca, as well as the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers (IFPMA) and the Developing Countries Vaccine Manufacturers Network.

“We must leave no stone unturned. We must explore every option for increasing production, including voluntary licenses, technology pools, the use of TRIPS flexibilities and the waiver of certain intellectual property provisions,” he said. 

Tedros also defended the COVID-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP), which has failed to generate interest from big pharma, even though it has been backed by 40 countries so far. 

“Like COVAX, it [C-TAP] holds enormous potential, but like COVAX, that potential has not been fulfilled,” he said. “WHO is also calling for expressions of interest to establish technology transfer hubs to assist countries acquire vaccine technology and know-how as rapidly as possible.”

“The current company-controlled production sharing agreements are not coming close to meeting the overwhelming public health and socio-economic needs for effective, affordable and equitable access to vaccines, as well as therapeutics and other critical health technologies.“

IFPMA Comments At WTO

Thomas Cueni, director general of the IFPMA

In an IFPMA statement at the WTO event, Director-General Thomas Cueni offered a pharma counterpoint that echoed the Gates official, saying: 

“We tend to forget the daunting task of scaling up manufacturing. Vaccine manufacturing is a complex biological process. Vaccine development is not granted for success. We have seen problems with scarcity of raw materials ingredients, and we have problems with export restrictions. 

“We are on track with this target of 10 billion doses, because industry is doing what society and all of you would have expected it to be doing, namely: engaged in unprecedented partnerships, in unprecedented technology transfers. I’ve counted 272 partnerships, which the industry has signed on COVID-19. More than 200 of them involving technology transfer.  I expect that we will see more also in terms of partnership, building capacity.  

“We are willing to sit down with our partners in COVAX to see what can be done in terms of supply chain visibility, in export restrictions to accelerate trade – WTO will play an important role there. We truly know that no one is safe until everyone is safe.”

Civil Society Calls on United States To Play A Bigger Leadership Role 

Meanwhile in Washington DC, some 66 health and development organisations called on US President Joe Biden to launch a global vaccine manufacturing program to end the pandemic.

The open letter, published by Public Citizen on Tuesday, called upon the United States to invest US$ 25 billion to establish in collaboration with the WHO hubs for vaccine production in Africa, Asia and Latin America; and to ensure open sharing of technology via WHO’s C-TAP access pool. 

The group called on President Biden to “announce and implement a global vaccine manufacturing program to end the pandemic and build a globally-distributed vaccine infrastructure for future pandemics.

“Much more ambitious U.S. leadership is needed to end the global pandemic,” said Peter Maybarduk, director of Public Citizen’s Access to Medicines program. “The U.S. government should establish, urgently, a manufacturing operation for the world, that would share vaccine recipes and work with the World Health Organization to alleviate suffering and bring billions of additional vaccine doses to humanity.”

Image Credits: IFPMA .

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