Pharmaceutical CEOs to G7: Protect Intellectual Property Rights and Pathogen Access in WHO Pandemic Accord
Pharmaceutical CEOs
Pharmaceutical industry groups say the current draft of the World Health Organization’s pandemic treaty would leave the world less prepared for the next global outbreak.

CEOs from the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies issued a call to G7 leaders on Friday to oppose the inclusion of intellectual property rights waivers and pathogen benefit sharing in the World Health Organization’s (WHO) pandemic treaty

In meetings with Japanese Prime Minister and chair of next month’s G7 summit Fumio Kishida this week, a delegation of 24 CEOs from the industry group, the Biopharmaceutical Roundtable (BCR), argued that the current draft of the pandemic accord would make the world less prepared for the next pandemic by threatening IP rights and slowing the pace of pathogen sequence sharing.

The case made by BCR in its open letter is based on the vital if controversial role pharmaceutical companies have played in returning a sense of relative normalcy to day to day life since the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“If we look back at the COVID-19 pandemic, I think it’s fair to say that the industry success in developing and scaling up vaccines, treatments, and test diagnostics at record speed was key to get our societies back and out of the pandemic,” said Jean-Christophe Tellier, BCR chairman and president of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA). 

“[Protection of] intellectual property rights (IP) I think is one of the lessons from COVID-19.”

Global health and medicines access advocates have praised the strength of the WHO zero-draft in areas like IP waivers, which many believe would prevent a repeat of the limited and delayed access to life-saving drugs experienced by countries unable to afford the steep prices demanded by pharmaceutical companies at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The topic is likely to be one of the key battle lines in treaty negotiations as the world tries to shape the lessons of the pandemic into what would be a historic achievement in the world of global health. 

“IP was never an issue for access in low and middle income countries,” Eli Lilly CEO David Ricks said in a press conference in Tokyo on Friday.  “As countries and multilateral organisations begin to advance future pandemic preparedness plans, it is critical that such frameworks prioritise and further strengthen the innovation ecosystem, which is built upon strong intellectual property, a vibrant private sector and fair value for innovation. 

“This is specifically what we have requested the G7 leaders to consider,” he said.  

Intellectual property protections must be absolute, industry says 

The idea that IP protections were essential to the record speed at which pharmaceutical companies got vaccines onto shelves is heavily contested

Industry groups like BCR and IFPMA say that without them, their incentive to innovate and invest in research and development is not sufficient to justify the costs. Since 2010, average research and development costs have risen 43% to almost $2 billion per drug. 

“We must prevent the weakening of the international IP protections that would result from unnecessary and misguided proposals to waive the TRIPS agreement for vaccines and therapeutics,” Ricks said. 

“While we strongly support the WHO as a partner and share its overall ambition to strengthen pandemic preparedness … through the WHO pandemic accord, there are concerning and troubling aspects of the zero-draft that would severely impact the ability of the private sector at large to provide leadership once again, if needed, in the areas where we did on COVID-19.”

The UN’s intellectual property agency has estimated the social benefits of COVID-19 vaccines at $70.5 trillion annually, nearly 900 times the estimated private sector revenues of $130.5 billion. 

“Almost two years of the COVID-19 vaccination programme … prevented 60 million deaths,” said WHO Executive Board member and International University of Health & Welfare president Yasuhiro Suzuki. “I would call [that] worth the money invested in the pharmaceutical sector.”

Pathogen benefit sharing will slow access to sequences 

Pathogen benefit sharing is another key point of contention in negotiations at the WHO. In its current form, the pandemic accord would allow countries sharing genetic sequences to seek financial compensation for uploading them to open databases. 

The first COVID-19 vaccine went into production just 66 days after the genome sequence was shared by Chinese scientists. Without that sequence, the development of vaccines would have been impossible. 

Pharmaceutical companies argue that providing a financial incentive for countries to share  critical genome sequences could result in a cost paid in thousands of lives should another pandemic arise. 

“Such approaches are more than likely to delay access to pathogens and the timely development of medical countermeasures in the event of a pandemic,” IFPMA Director General Thomas Cueni told Health Policy Watch. 

“Industry’s experience with the Nagoya Protocol has shown that a transactional approach is not compatible with rapidly accessing pathogens, particularly when rapid response is needed for epidemics and pandemics.”

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