WHO Welcomes US Move to Share COVID-19 Technologies with C-TAP Patent Pool 
covid technologies
US NIH will offer some of its COVID-19 technologies to WHO’s C-TAP patent pool.

The United States National Institutes of Health (NIH) will offer certain government-funded coronavirus technologies to WHO’s COVID-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP), top US officials said on Thursday. 

The  announcement by US Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra at a virtual meeting Thursday with other ministers of health, could help bolster support for the WHO effort to build a repository of treatments, tests and vaccines available to any country on an open license – an effort that has failed to gain much buy-in from either governments, researchers or industry so far. 

WHO welcomed the move saying it would help the agency and countries to more quickly overcome the COVID pandemic. 

“This is a strong example of innovation and collaboration coming together to expand access,” said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who also spoke at the virtual ‘COVID-19 Dialogue – Potential Opportunities for Innovation and Collaboration, convened by Becerra with over 20 health ministers and senior health officials from Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.  

“Voluntary sharing of technologies through non-exclusive agreements will not only help us put the pandemic behind us; it will also empower low- and middle-income countries to produce their own medical products and achieve equitable access,” Tedros added in a follow-up statement.  

US Secretary of Health and Human Services, Xavier Becerra

The NIH technologies will also be sub-licensed to the United Nations backed Medicines Patent Pool (MPP) – in an effort to amplify the impact of certain American scientific breakthroughs to better fight the pandemic, said Becerra.

Sharing technologies behind NIH-devised coronavirus diagnostics, treatments and vaccines will help other nations and developers to move innovations to the manufacturing phase more quickly, Becerra said. 

The HHS secretary also hinted that the move to share NIH technologies with C-TAP could set the stage for further policy changes around how NIH innovations are used and shared, noting that: “moving forward, HHS will work with manufacturers to promote global access to public health emergency products in future purchase agreements”.

‘Push the envelope where the law allows’

Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID), also confirmed the plan to share the NIH know-how on a call with US media later Thursday. But he declined to offer details on exactly what technologies will be shared, saying the plan is “still being ironed out.” 

However, both Fauci and Becerra hinted that they would try to push for the inclusion of powerful innovations like the Moderna mRNA vaccine in the patent pool – if the NIH were to win a bitterly-contested patent dispute with the company over the ownership of a patent critical to the vaccine recipe.

“We’re still in early stages,” Becerra quoted as saying. “This latest announcement is an effort to try to let low and middle-income countries know that we want them to have capacities as well.”

But he added that HHS would “push the envelope where the law allows us.”

The NIH and Moderna are locked in a battle around patent ownership for key technologies related to the Moderna vaccine. 

WHO – NIH move will help ‘put pandemic behind us’

“We will be honored to sign public health-driven transparent non-exclusive license agreements with NIH under the auspices of C-TAP when the negotiations have concluded, with the goal to provide access of these innovative technologies to people in need around the world and help put an end to the pandemic,” said MPP Executive Director Charles Gore in the joint WHO-MPP statement

In Nov. 2021, Spain announced that it would share the technology behind a coronavirus antibody test to the pool, known as C-TAP, the first significant donation. However, few other takers have surfaced, and WHO has since refocused more of its efforts on building a series of technology transfer hubs that aimed to train researchers and jump-start manufacturing of vaccines and other innovations – including one based in Cape Town and another, announced last week, in the Republic of Korea.  

Medecines access advocates also said they were heartened by the decision – although some took a wait-and-see attitude to see what technologies are really shared.

“HHS’s announcement is a turn towards sharing not only doses, but knowledge, which is the difference between charity and justice. It is a trajectory which if pursued with seriousness of purpose can improve resilience to future pandemics and bring a measure of justice to a terribly unjust time,” said Peter Maybarduk, who oversees the global medicine program at Public Citizen, an advocacy organization.

Entry point for US to share patents 

While the newly-announced agreement is with WHO’s C-Tap, the US announcement could also open the door for new policies on NIH funding of discovery research, some observers also suggested. 

If future funding arrangements provide an entry point for the US to explicitly preserve its right to share patents for global health objectives, that would have more long-term impacts on the ecosystem of R&D-sharing, beyond the current pandemic, said Knowledge Ecology International Director James Love:

 “In the past, the NIH has opposed such agreements or clauses in the NIH funding agreements, and we hope that attitudes are changing,” he said.  

Becerra’s announcement followed  Wednesday’s release of a new White House plan for US COVID-19 preparedness, which also emphasises the importance of “vaccinating the world” to prevent future pandemics.

Image Credits: wasajja_j/Twitter, Twitter .

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