Rich Countries Signed Away a Chance to Vaccinate the World
In the coming days, a patent will finally be issued on a five-year-old invention, a feat of molecular engineering that is at the heart of at least five major Covid-19 vaccines. And the United States government will control that patent.
The new patent presents an opportunity — and some argue the last best chance — to exact leverage over the drug companies producing the vaccines and pressure them to expand access to less affluent countries.
The question is whether the government will do anything at all.
The rapid development of Covid-19 vaccines, achieved at record speed and financed by massive public funding in the United States, the European Union and Britain, represents a great triumph of the pandemic. Governments partnered with drugmakers, pouring in billions of dollars to procure raw materials, finance clinical trials and retrofit factories. Billions more were committed to buy the finished product.
But this Western success has created stark inequity. Residents of wealthy and middle-income countries have received about 90 percent of the nearly 400 million vaccines delivered so far. Under current projections, many of the rest will have to wait years.
Growing numbers of health officials and advocacy groups worldwide are calling for Western governments to use aggressive powers — most of them rarely or never used before — to force companies to publish vaccine recipes, share their know-how and ramp up manufacturing. Public health advocates have pleaded for help, including asking the Biden administration to use its patent to push for broader vaccine access.
Governments have resisted. By partnering with drug companies, Western leaders bought their way to the front of the line. But they also ignored years of warnings — and explicit calls from the World Health Organization — to include contract language that would have guaranteed doses for poor countries or encouraged companies to share their knowledge and the patents they control.
“It was like a run on toilet paper. Everybody was like, ‘Get out of my way. I’m gonna get that last package of Charmin,’” said Gregg Gonsalves, a Yale epidemiologist. “We just ran for the doses.”
The prospect of billions of people waiting years to be vaccinated poses a health threat to even the richest countries. One example: In Britain, where the vaccine rollout has been strong, health officials are tracking a virus variant that emerged in South Africa, where vaccine coverage is weak. That variant may be able to blunt the effect of vaccines, meaning even vaccinated people might get sick.
Western health officials said they never intended to exclude others. But with their own countries facing massive death tolls, the focus was at home. Patent sharing, they said, simply never came up.
“It was U.S.-centric. It wasn’t anti-global.” said Moncef Slaoui, who was the chief scientific adviser for Operation Warp Speed, a Trump administration program that funded the search for vaccines in the United States. “Everybody was in agreement that vaccine doses, once the U.S. is served, will go elsewhere.”
President Biden and Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Union’s executive branch, are reluctant to change course. Mr. Biden has promised to help an Indian company produce about 1 billion doses by the end of 2022 and his administration has donated doses to Mexico and Canada. But he has made it clear that his focus is at home.
“We’re going to start off making sure Americans are taken care of first,” Mr. Biden said recently. “But we’re then going to try and help the rest of the world.”
Pressuring companies to share patents could be seen as undermining innovation, sabotaging drugmakers or picking drawn-out and expensive fights with the very companies digging a way out of the pandemic.
As rich countries fight to keep things as they are, others like South Africa and India have taken the battle to the World Trade Organization, seeking a waiver on patent restrictions for Covid-19 vaccines.
Russia and China, meanwhile, have promised to fill the void as part of their vaccine diplomacy. The Gamaleya Institute in Moscow, for example, has entered into partnerships with producers from Kazakhstan to South Korea, according to data from Airfinity, a science analytics company, and UNICEF. Chinese vaccine makers have reached similar deals in the United Arab Emirates, Brazil and Indonesia.
Addressing patents would not, by itself, solve the vaccine imbalance. Retrofitting or constructing factories would take time. More raw materials would need to be manufactured. Regulators would have to approve new assembly lines.
And as with cooking a complicated dish, giving someone a list of ingredients is no substitute to showing them how to make it.
To address these problems, the World Health Organization created a technology pool last year to encourage companies to share know-how with manufacturers in lower-income nations.
Not a single vaccine company has signed up.
“The problem is that the companies don’t want to do it. And the government is just not very tough with the companies,” said James Love, who leads Knowledge Ecology International, a nonprofit.
Drug company executives told European lawmakers recently that they were licensing their vaccines as quickly as possible, but that finding partners with the right technology was challenging.
“They don’t have the equipment,” Moderna’s chief executive, Stéphane Bancel, said. “There is no capacity.”
But manufacturers from Canada to Bangladesh say they can make vaccines — they just lack patent licensing deals. When the price is right, companies have shared secrets with new manufacturers in just months, ramping up production and retrofitting factories.
It helps when the government sweetens the deal. Earlier this month, Mr. Biden announced that the pharmaceutical giant Merck would help make vaccines for its competitor Johnson & Johnson. The government pressured Johnson & Johnson to accept the help and is using wartime procurement powers to secure supplies for the company. It will also pay to retrofit Merck’s production line, with an eye toward making vaccines available to every adult in the United States by May.
Despite the hefty government funding, drug companies control nearly all of the intellectual property and stand to make fortunes off the vaccines. A critical exception is the patent expected to be approved soon — a government-led discovery for manipulating a key coronavirus protein.
This breakthrough, at the center of the 2020 race for a vaccine, actually came years earlier in a National Institutes of Health lab, where an American scientist named Dr. Barney Graham was in pursuit of a medical moonshot.
‘We’d already done everything’
For years, Dr. Graham specialized in the kind of long, expensive research that only governments bankroll. He searched for a key to unlock universal vaccines — genetic blueprints to be used against any of the roughly two dozen viral families that infect humans. When a new virus emerged, scientists could simply tweak the code and quickly make a vaccine.
In 2016, while working on Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, another coronavirus known as MERS, he and his colleagues developed a way to swap a pair of amino acids in the coronavirus spike protein. That bit of molecular engineering, they realized, could be used to develop effective vaccines against any coronavirus. The government, along with its partners at Dartmouth College and the Scripps Research Institute, filed for a patent, which will be issued this month.
When Chinese scientists published the genetic code of the new coronavirus in January 2020, Dr. Graham’s team had their cookbook ready.