By Mike Podmore
The Covid-19 pandemic continues to escalate globally and, with it, the understanding that it will not affect everyone equally. One of the major disparities that we are likely to see is who will be able to access a vaccine and who will not.
Promising candidates for treating and preventing the spread of Covid-19 have been identified and are being trialled. The UK government is supporting such research and is a leading donor in vaccine research, having already committed £250 million.
But there is a real danger that without effective safeguards, big pharmaceutical companies could have far too much control over who is able to manufacture, sell or access a vaccine. We at STOPAIDS have seen too many examples of Big Pharma prioritising extortionate and unreasonable pricing which has then meant many patients can't afford life-saving treatments and become sick or even die. Lifesaving treatments must be available to everyone who needs them, especially the most vulnerable, if we are to collectively stop the spread of this pandemic.
Taxpayers play a huge role in the research and development of medicines and vaccines. But promising drug candidates are too often snatched up by Big Pharma, who are granted patents or other monopoly rights for their treatments. These allow them to decide who can manufacture their products, who can sell and what price they will charge. It also hinders research efforts, as important data and know-how are obscured by a matrix of legal protection.
In our report, written with Global Justice Now, 'Pills and Profits: How drug companies make a killing out of public research', we discovered that the NHS spent over £1 billion in 2016 alone on medicines developed with support from UK public funding.
In fact, two out of five of the NHS's most expensive drugs in 2015/16 were discovered with substantial support from UK taxpayers. One example of a drug that benefitted from UK publicly funded research was abiraterone, an effective drug for treating advanced prostate cancer. The use of abiraterone for patients on the NHS was restricted for years due in part to it being unaffordable.
It is unfair that NHS patients have had to wait sometimes years to receive a medicine because a pharmaceutical company refuses to drop the price, especially when the UK public have had a hand in developing that medicine. It is also unacceptable that 100 million people around the world each year are pushed into extreme poverty because of the costs of medicines.
The 'business as usual' approach to drug development cannot continue. We must take urgent action now to ensure future Covid-19 treatments and vaccines are affordable to all.
On Thursday, over 20 international organisations, including Oxfam and MSF UK, called for just that. Our letter addressed to the UK government demands that big pharmaceutical companies do not profiteer from Covid-19 at the expense of patient lives. We echo the calls of 130 cross-party parliamentarians in a letter to the prime minister's office, who ask for the government to safeguard access to any new Covid-19 vaccine or treatment developed with the help of taxpayer funds to all who need it.
We also support their call for the UK to support the proposal for an international pooling mechanism for Covid-19 research to be set up by the WHO. This pool would allow open access to the data, rights and technologies used in testing, treating and preventing infections. Doing so would accelerate global research efforts, protect universal access and enable the production of a vaccine or other health products at scale.
The idea of an international pool is supported by the WHO, the European Union, the government of the Netherlands and UNITAID. However, more government backing, including from the UK, is needed to ensure that this urgent initiative takes off.
We should learn from the response to other global health challenges. It was during the height of the HIV epidemic in the early 2000s that civil society, governments and industry took steps to drastically increase access to medicines. This included re-affirming the rights of governments to use the flexibilities outlined in the WTO Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (Trips) Agreement, such as issuing compulsory licenses. Such flexibilities helped bring down the price of HIV treatments from over $10,000 per person per year to just a few hundred dollars per year.
With the number of Covid-19 cases and deaths escalating, now more than ever, we need global solutions, like the pooling mechanism, and guarantees that when we develop a vaccine everyone can benefit.
Mike Podmore is the director of STOPAIDS.
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