Generics players join pledge to rapidly scale access to COVID-19 drugs. But will pharma sign on?

As dozens of drugmakers work to create new or repurposed therapies for COVID-19, developing nations worry they will be last in line for supply after their richer neighbors. Hoping to level the playing field, a UN-backed nonprofit is bringing a group of generic manufacturers together to rapidly scale access to those drugs. 

Eighteen generic drugmakers have joined an initiative by the nonprofit Medicines Patent Pool (MPP) to increase low- and middle-income nations' access to small-molecule drugs and biologics used to fight COVID-19, the group said Thursday. 

The scheme aims to entice drugmakers with new or repurposed small-molecule drugs for COVID-19 to "negotiate agreements" for those drugs with a pool of generic manufacturers, MPP said in a release. Those agreements could take the form of licensing deals or other pacts to rapidly scale up manufacturing for broader distribution. 

The MPP, founded in 2010 by the World Health Organization-partnered Unitaid, previously established pools for hepatitis C and HIV drugs with deals signed by Bristol Myers Squibb, ViiV Healthcare, Gilead Sciences and AbbVie, among others. Those collaborations have shipped 15 billion doses of those drugs to low- and middle-income countries, MPP said, including 3 billion doses during the pandemic. 

The signatories on MPP's newest pledge include some of India's biggest generics players, including Lupin, Aurobindo Pharma, Zydus Cadila and Sun Pharma. Other giants, such as South Korea's biosims specialist Celltrion and Bangladesh's Beximco are also on board. 

"This unprecedented cooperation from companies that are typically competitors represents a breakthrough in our efforts to level the playing field for access to drugs that will be crucial to controlling and defeating this pandemic,” MPP Executive Director Charles Gore said in a release. 

RELATED: Sanofi, GSK to provide 200M coronavirus vaccines to COVAX for equitable distribution

Without a major branded drugmaker yet signed on, though, the MPP's initiative is at the mercy of companies who may see no need to license away their patents for potentially lucrative drugs used to treat COVID-19. 

The effort also doesn't include COVID-19 vaccines, which have become a major area of focus for global health regulators in the fight against the virus. 

COVAX—a parallel initiative from WHO, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and Gavi—has signed on some of the biggest vaccine makers working on COVID-19 with the similar goal of expanding access to low- and middle-income countries. 

In October, partners Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline pledged 200 million doses of their vaccine to the effort, which has also signed Indian vaccines giant Serum Institute of India (SII) and is in talks with AstraZeneca and Pfizer for additional supply. 

RELATED: Gilead inks deals with generics makers to supply COVID-19 therapy remdesivir for 127 countries

Meanwhile, at least one major player in the COVID-19 therapeutic space has shown interest in licensing its med out for a major manufacturing bump. 

In May, Gilead signed nonexclusive licensing agreements with five generic drugmakers operating in India and Pakistan to produce its COVID-19 therapy remdesivir, marketed as Veklury in the U.S., for 127 countries.

Gilead is working with Cipla, Mylan, Ferozsons Laboratories, Hetero Labs and Jubilant Lifesciences to manufacture the drug primarily for low- and lower-middle income countries. The list also includes higher-income countries "that face significant obstacles to healthcare access," Gilead said.