Coronavirus vaccine: US Chamber of Commerce calls for more transparency from big pharma over licensing deals

Finer details surrounding recent agreements struck between pharmaceutical giants and governments remain absent

Samuel Lovett
Monday 15 June 2020 09:34 BST
Labour warns of vaccine nationalism as global race to find coronavirus cure intensifies

The US Chamber of Commerce, the largest lobbying group in America and the leading voice for corporate power in Washington, has suggested that more transparency is needed surrounding the Covid-19 vaccine deals that are being struck between pharmaceutical firms and governments.

More than 150 vaccine candidates are currently being developed across the world, with numerous industry collaborations between the private and public sectors serving to bolster these efforts.

A handful of these candidates have already entered into human clinical trials, raising hope that a viable vaccine could be made available by the end of the year.

Pharmaceutical giants such as AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson and Sanofi are among those leading the race to develop a form of immunisation against Covid-19, and have each promised to make billions of doses available globally on a non-for-profit basis if their vaccines prove effective.

At the same time, these companies, which have received billions in public money from governments, have already entered into a number of agreements committing them to the production of millions of doses for their investors.

Last month, the UK government announced a £65.5m deal with AstraZeneca, which was earlier granted the licensing for the promising Oxford University vaccine, that will see the firm deliver a total of 100 million doses for people in Britain.

In a similar move, the Trump administration has committed £969m in funding to the company in return for 300 million doses, the first of which could be available for American citizens as early as October.

AstraZeneca and Serum Institute of India, one of the largest manufacturers in the world, have also reached a multimillion licensing agreement to supply one billion doses to middle and low income countries, including India.

However, the finer details surrounding these deals remain absent. Earlier this month, health campaigners demanded that the pharmaceutical sector release the full terms of the licensing agreements, including production costs, prices (both during the pandemic and once it is declared over) and full disclosure of public investment.

The US Chamber of Commerce, which has spent more than $1.6bn on lobbying the federal government over the past two decades, has seemingly echoed these calls for heightened transparency as America’s leading pharmaceuticals step up efforts to develop a vaccine.

“This is a unique situation and I feel comfortable saying that a higher level of transparency is warranted, especially given the unusual public sector contribution to some of the efforts that are ongoing,” Patrick Kilbride, a senior vice president of the US Chamber’s Global Innovation Policy Centre (GIPC), told The Independent.

“As a citizen, I would certainly expect to understand how a government was working with different players and private industry to deliver a vaccine or a therapy.

“The short answer is yes [more transparency is needed]. But we don’t have a clear-cut US Chamber position on that.”

However, the US Chamber stopped short of supporting demands for pharmaceuticals to relinquish patent and intellectual property (IP) rights, arguing that they should not simply be perceived as a “reward or bonus” that follows a discovery.

“Our experience working with our members is that the real effective IP comes long before companies are a granted a patent or trademark,” he said.

“It’s the system itself, the reliability of the system, the enforceability of the rights that enables the company to make long-term, high-risk investments over many years.

“It creates a platform where these companies can say ‘let’s try this and this’.”

Mr Kilbride acknowledged that while some companies had already indicated they do not intend to make a profit off their potential vaccines, other firms were unable to make similar commitments.

“What’s important is that government is not rushed to judgement, that they don’t create a preemptive mechanism that waives rights through this crisis, but that they really consider circumstances and take it on a case-by-case basis.”

Numerous firms have already dismissed an initiative set up by the World Health Organisation (WHO), called the Covid-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP), which encourages governments and pharmaceutical groups to share data, IP and manufacturing know-how.

So far, 37 countries including Norway, the Netherlands and Mexico have signed up to C-TAP, but Dr Albert Bourla, chief executive of Pfizer, described the scheme as “nonsense”.

“At this point of time it’s also dangerous,” he said earlier this month. “There’s a giant effort right now happening to find a solution. The risks we are taking [represent] billions of dollars and the chances of developing something are still not very good.”

AstraZeneca’s chief executive, Pascal Soriot, said: “I think IP is a fundamental part of our industry and if you don’t protect IP, then essentially there is no incentive for anybody to innovate.”

Despite such resistance from the industry, the pandemic has already brought the private and public sectors together in a way not previously seen, the US Chamber said.

“There’s this enormous and unprecedented mobilisation of R& D by business, and to a certain extent added to by government and various other non-governmental organisations,” Robert Grant, director of international policy at the GIPC, told The Independent.

“So many of the companies are working together in partnership both with the government and one another to share intelligence, research, licensing and so on so forth. It really is a considerable collective effort that is typically much less common in non-crisis times. The spectre of this monopolist charging exorbitant prices is a bit of phantom.”

Mr Kilbride also acknowledged the dangerous prospect of governments scrambling to secure their own populations’ vaccine and treatment needs, instead of prioritising global efforts to fight Covid-19, as has already been seen with the advance purchase orders made by countries.

“You certainly have seen some of that nationalism emerge from certain governments, including our own,” he said. “But the business community though is truly global. Companies that we represent research, manufacture and distribute everywhere in the world.

“I think they realise that in the very immediate term avoiding supply chain disruption is absolutely critical to being able to deliver the solutions that all of us want. A collaborative approach to the production and distribution of those products is absolutely essential.

“Vaccine nationalism is definitely not the answer.”

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