The Malaysian Health Coalition (MHC) and the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative (DNDi) recently published an open letter calling for the global access to Covid-19 vaccines, diagnostic tests, and treatments.
In the letter, they also brought attention to the fact that Malaysia has been excluded from voluntary licensing agreements that would allow local generic manufacturers to produce an affordable version of remdesivir, a potential treatment for Covid-19, for Malaysians.
At the same time, the 73rd World Health Assembly on the 19th of May 2020 adopted a resolution on the global Covid-19 response, calling for, “the universal, timely and equitable access to and fair distribution of all quality, safe, efficacious and affordable essential health technologies and products including their components and precursors required in the response to the Covid-19 pandemic as a global priority, and the urgent removal of unjustified obstacles thereto; consistent with the provisions of relevant international treaties including the provisions of the TRIPS agreement and the flexibilities as confirmed by the Doha Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health.”
(Note: The flexibilities mentioned here refer to each country’s legal right to put aside intellectual property rights in a public health emergency.)
These two events highlight the need to provide global access to affordable vaccines and treatments and how barriers like the patent system and intellectual property rights can threaten this access.
There has been concern, however, that setting aside the patent system and the usual benefits accorded to the patent holder will disincentivise and reduce the rate of innovation. This is unlikely to happen, especially in the global race to develop Covid-19 vaccines and treatments.
Historically, the patent system was set up to benefit both inventors and the public by incentivising research and development, promoting public disclosure of inventions, and to allow others to further innovate by building on current inventions.
Today, the patent system in pharmaceuticals all too often restricts the open sharing of information, prevents further innovation by others through unjustified extensions of patents, and disincentivises real innovation.
In the United States, the number of pharmaceutical patents awarded increased by 409 percent between 1983 and 2010 while the number of applications for new drugs, only rose by 7 percent.
Similarly, 87.6 percent of newly patented drugs between 1990 and 2003 in Canada were found to have no substantial improvement over existing products.
This raises the question of whether the patent system incentivises ‘me-too’ products and the defense of existing patents, rather than true innovations. One can usually debate endlessly about the pros and cons of the patent system, however, these are very different times.
It is clear that in this time of global need, the usual practices with regard to intellectual property and pricing have to be set aside in favour of new ‘win-win’ models that benefit both innovators and the global community.
One model recommended is the pooling of patents under the Medicines Patent Pool, where patent holders can share their innovations with generic manufacturers.
With this arrangement, generic manufacturers can produce large quantities of affordable vaccines and treatments, while patent holders are paid reasonable royalties in return. Information can also be shared publicly and improvements can be built on top of existing drugs, leading to improved health outcomes for all.
It is undeniable that pharmaceutical companies will stand to make less money through patent pooling when compared to their usual business model.
This may, however, be preferable to the greater losses experienced if countries are forced to invoke their rights to set aside patents through compulsory licenses.
But why should pharmaceutical companies leave money on the table? For starters, it could certainly help bolster their reputation as well as gain them the public’s trust and goodwill for collaborating towards global recovery.
And as the Financial Times, that bastion of capitalism, says: “This is not the time to be prioritising the bottom line.”
The global fight against Covid–19 can only be won only if all stakeholders play their part. Right now, it is time for pharmaceutical companies to step up and shine.
Mark Cheong Wing Loong, MPharm, MBA, MA, PhD (Public Health), Lecturer, Monash University Malaysia.
- This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of CodeBlue.