COVID-19 vaccine makers, after rejecting controversial IP proposal, lay out their own plan to improve global supplies

When the Biden administration earlier this month voiced support for a proposal to lift patent protection on COVID-19 vaccines, the pharmaceutical industry was quick to shoot holes in the plan.

The extraordinary initiative, designed to help needy countries manufacture vaccines on their own, would actually do little to quickly get shots into the arms of people in countries where supplies were lacking, the industry said.

Two weeks later, the industry has laid out its plan to improve global vaccine access.

The International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations, along with other groups such as PhRMA and BIO, issued a five-step plan which generally urges companies, governments and non-government organizations to work together to remedy vaccine supply inequities.

The IFPMA said that the industry supports the following general steps: 1) increase dose sharing among countries; 2) optimize production; 3) eliminate trade barriers for critical raw materials; 4) support country readiness for vaccination programs; and 5) drive further innovation.

The plan provides broad brushstrokes but little in the way of specifics as to how the industry could make these initiatives happen.

For example, to increase dose sharing, the IFPMA says that the industry is committed to “immediately work with governments that have significant domestic supplies of COVID-19 vaccine doses to share a meaningful proportion of their doses with low- and middle-income countries in a responsible and timely way through COVAX or other efficient established mechanisms.”   

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To eliminate trade barriers, the IFPMA says the industry will “urge governments, in coordination with the World Trade Organization, to eliminate all trade and regulatory barriers to export and to adopt policies that facilitate and expedite the cross-border supply of key raw materials, essential manufacturing materials, vaccines along with the prioritized movement of skilled workforce needed for COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing.”  

On innovation, the industry commits to “prioritize the development of new COVID-19 vaccines, including vaccines effective against variants of concern,” and will “urge governments to guarantee unhindered access to pathogens (e.g. samples and sequences) of any COVID-19 variants to support the development of new vaccine and treatments.”

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The industry is releasing its plan after the Biden administration unveiled its support for a proposal at the World Trade Organization to suspend patent protection for COVID-19 drugs and vaccines. While the pronouncement was initially met with condemnation from the industry, other leading pharma figures, including Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel, dismissed the news, saying he “didn’t lose a minute of sleep" over it.

“This is a new technology,” Bancel said of his company’s development of its mRNA vaccine. “You cannot go hire people who know how to make mRNA. Those people don’t exist.”

Some industry analysts also poked holes in the initiative to waive patent protections on COVID-19 vaccines, saying the process would take too long to make a difference.

“There could be a significant delay between the WTO agreement on the waiver details and the increased supplies of vaccines,” wrote Thomas Hess, principal at Avalere Health.