8 December 2020, Geneva — The biopharmaceutical industry has made the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic its top priority, devoting its resources, expertise, know-how, and intellectual assets to developing potential treatments, diagnostics and vaccines at unprecedented pace, while committing to and engaging in new levels of international collaboration and coordination through initiatives such as ACT-A, ACTIV and CEPI to ensure equitable access to products being developed. The industry stands by its commitment to fair and equitable access to COVID-19 treatments and vaccines. With three vaccines, and potentially as many as ten in the coming months being approved by regulators and produced in their billions by vaccine makers, there is hope of finding a lasting solution for the pandemic.
From the outset of the pandemic, biopharmaceutical companies have walked the talk. “It has been a tremendously daunting challenge, and so far, things have gone better than could have expected, but going forwards, solidarity from richer countries to help others will be key”, says Thomas Cueni, Director General of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA). Cueni believes the timeline for achieving a new normal, “will depend on working collaboratively to overcome the bumps along the road. Hopefully if governments are ready, we will start seeing herd immunity taking effect as early as summer 2021 in some countries. By summer 2022, we could hope to see much of the world achieving immunity.”
In the light of such progress, and despite a lack of any evidence, there have been claims that intellectual property (IP) rights are hindering the response to the pandemic. A waiver proposal currently being discussed by the World Trade Organization (WTO) is looking to suspend Member States’ obligations to protect innovator’s intellectual property assets that are critical to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. In view of the progress made so far in providing COVID-19 solutions and the partnerships in place to boost research and scale-up manufacturing of vaccines and treatments, diluting national and international IP frameworks during this pandemic is counterproductive. It will not lead to faster research and development or access, but it will undermine confidence in what has proven to be a well-functioning IP system, allowing industry to partner with confidence with academia, research institutes, foundations and other private companies, significantly expediting the research and development of medicines to address the worlds’ many unmet medical needs.
IP enables research and development and ensures that the next generation of inventors and investors will remain engaged. “At a time, when the focus should be on science and innovation, undoing the very system that supports it, is dangerous and counterintuitive” says Cueni.
In a matter of 10 months since the COVID-19 virus was shared with the world’s scientists, over 1138 treatments in investigation and 347 vaccines candidates (Airfinity) in preclinical and clinical trials are being researched or in clinical trials around the world. Some are for repurposed drugs proven to work against other diseases, others as novel as the virus itself. Such progress has been possible thanks to a thriving innovation ecosystem, underpinned by intellectual property rights. The contribution of millions of people who joined clinical trials, the rigorous scrutiny of regulators, and the tireless work of healthcare workers has meant that increasing numbers of people are surviving and the end of the pandemic through large-scale immunization is a concrete possibility.
Country preparedness will be key to ensuring availability and access of the COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics currently being developed. This includes timely regulatory approval, supply chain scrutiny and effective distribution of the treatments and vaccines under development. Finally, progress towards achieving immunity may be hindered by people having concerns about the safety of vaccines. In early 2021, IFPMA will launch an information campaign to answer concerns and explain how COVID-19 vaccines are going through a rigorous research and development processes; and that clinical trials of COVID-19 are of the same standard as other vaccines.