With COVID Vaccine Supply Outstripping Vaccination Rates, Pharma Giants Question Pursuit of IP Waiver 
IFPMA Director General Thomas Cueni (foreground) with moderator Claire Doole and Albert Bourla, David Ricks and Bill Anderson on screen.

Pharmaceutical giants have questioned why a waiver on intellectual property (IP) rights for COVID-19 vaccines is still on the table when they are battling to find markets for their vaccines amid order cancellations – including from the Africa Centre for Disease Control. 

“I’m stunned that the proposed IP waiver is still being debated while supplies of vaccines are far outstripping demand and some factories have been put to a halt because of missing orders,” Thomas Cueni, Director General of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations (IFPMA) told a media briefing on Wednesday.

With almost a billion vaccines now being produced every month, countries’ lack of capacity to vaccinate is now the main barrier to stopping COVID-19, added Cueni.

In the first quarter of the year 13.7 billion vaccine doses were delivered and 11 billion doses administered, said Cueni.

“Now orders are slowing down. Countries as well as organisations such as Africa CDC, are not only asking for orders to be delayed but are cancelling them,” added Cueni.

“Leading voices are still calling out vaccine scarcity. I do understand the concern. Vaccines are not reaching all those who need them. But the cause is no longer the lack of supplies. It’s scarcity of vaccination, which is due to the lack of country readiness, absorption capacity and the lack of resources needed to get the vaccines into arms.”

Countries’ lack of capacity

Pfizer CEO Dr Albert Bourla also weighed in on country capacity, saying that the US government was offering 200 million free doses to the poorest countries of the world but they lacked the capacity to administer the vaccines.

“The problem is not if there is availability or access to pricing. The problem is that the infrastructure of these countries is very poor, so they cannot absorb them. They cannot run a vaccination campaign,” said Bourla.

Bourla added that one of the pandemic’s key lessons was that more attention should have been paid to preparing countries to vaccinate people.

He also described any move to remove IP on vaccines as “insane”, while Roche CEO Bill Anderson described it as “unproductive”.

Eli Lilly CEO David Ricks warned that pharmaceutical companies and investors would “never have invested” in trying to develop COVID-19 vaccines “if there was not the promise of IP”.

“The next investments on the unknown technology which we can repurpose for the next pandemic won’t be made if investors believe that IP will be undermined,” warned Ricks.

“What is a patent? It’s a promise to disclose our inventions in return for a period of exclusivity,” added Ricks. “You’ll get much less disclosure about inventions actually as a result of an IP waiver. There’ll be a strong incentive to retain know-how, retain the recipes for what we do, much like you see in some other industries.”

Collaboration successes

Bourla said one of the best aspects of the pandemic had been the collaborations between different the industry partners, where competitors worked together, as we as public-private collaboration, particularly with regulators. 

He commended particularly the US Food and Drug Administration, the European Medicines Agency and the Canadian, Israeli and Japanese regulators for their speedy reviews of industry data.

“What did not help was the politicisation – if you take a vaccine or not, or wear a mask or not. Tthat created tremendous damage to the global health,” said Bourla.

At the IFPMA briefing (clockwise): Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla, IFPMA Director General Thomas Cueni and moderator Claire Doole, Roche CEO Bill Anderson and Eli Lilly CEO David Ricks

Future COVID vaccines

The IFPMA noted that there was “increasing acceptance that society will have to live with COVID-19”, and that continued innovation remains essential to expand on the 10 vaccines that have so far received WHO Emergency Use Listing approval and the 18 different treatments that have been approved in the UK, USA, and EU. 

Bourla said that Pfizer and Moderna were working on “multivariant” vaccines but this was “very challenging”, as was developing a COVID-19 vaccine that offered robust protection for at least a year.

He hoped this would be ready for testing in the third quarter of the year.

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