WHO Secures First COVID-19 Vaccine Licence from Private Pharmaceutical Company
Vaccine access groups praised the agreement as a long-overdue victory for vaccine equality in low-income countries but called out major pharmaceutical companies for putting profit over people.

Three years after the launch of its COVID-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP) initiative, the World Health Organization (WHO) has secured its first COVID-19 vaccine license from a private pharmaceutical company, the UN health body announced on Tuesday.

The agreement with Medigen Vaccine Biologics Corp., a private vaccine manufacturer based in Taiwan, is a welcome but underwhelming landmark for C-TAP, whose initial launch was accompanied by ambitions of ensuring equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines, treatments and technologies around the world.

“This is not just about COVID-19, it is about setting a precedent for future global health challenges,” said Charles Chen, Medigen’s CEO. “We hope to inspire other organizations to follow suit.”

The agreement with the Taiwanese manufacturer is one of three new licences acquired this week by the WHO through the Medicines Patent Pool. The other two agreements are with the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) and the University of Chile. CSIC is sharing a licence for a COVID-19 vaccine prototype, and the University of Chile is sharing its technology for a test used to measure COVID-19 antibody levels.

CSIC became the first entity to share technology with C-TAP in November 2021, when it signed a worldwide license for its COVID-19 antibody diagnostic test.

“COVID-19 is here to stay, and the world will continue to need tools to prevent it, test for it and treat it,” said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “WHO and our partners are committed to making those tools accessible to everyone, everywhere.”

C-TAP ambitions not shared by pharma 

C-TAP launched at the height of the pandemic in June 2020 to promote technology sharing based on “equity, strong science, open collaboration and solidarity”. The call to action was supported by 30 WHO member states, all of which were low-income countries without access to vaccines.

However, without the backing of major pharmaceutical companies and powerful governments, C-tap only secured two licencing agreements during the peak years of the pandemic – neither of which were vaccines. With the agreements announced this week, a total of just five licences – including two provided by CSIC – have been shared on C-TAP.

“It is shameful that, despite receiving unprecedented public funding and advance purchases, not even one of the major pharmaceutical companies has shared vaccine technology with C-TAP,” said Julia Kosgei, policy co-lead for campaign group the People’s Vaccine Alliance.

The WHO and its Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, have repeatedly called out the outsize power of pharmaceutical giants over the global vaccine market. This issue is once again in the spotlight as ongoing negotiations over the international Pandemic Treaty highlight the world’s dependence on a small number of companies to ensure equitable vaccine distribution for future pandemics.

In May, the WHO’s vaccine market report found that global vaccine supply is concentrated in fewer than a dozen manufacturers, leading WHO officials to call out the vaccine market for being controlled by “oligopolies”. Without “predefined and binding rules for vaccine distribution in times of scarcity” to prevent vaccine distribution from being guided by profits, the story of inequality borne out during the COVID-19 pandemic is destined to repeat itself, Tedros wrote in the foreword to the report.

Pfizer, BioNTech and Moderna refused to join C-TAP once their vaccines hit the market, citing research and development costs and the high risks associated with vaccine development.

In its press release accompanying the new license agreements this week, the WHO credited C-TAP with “raising awareness” for the need for wider sharing of patents for critical medicines – a tacit admission it has fallen well short of its ambitions to spur solidarity in the boardrooms of pharma giants.

Image Credits: Photo by Mat Napo on Unsplash.

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