Roche CEO Schwan joins chorus of pharma execs blasting COVID patent waiver

Another COVID-19 heavyweight is shunning a controversial measure that would waive intellectual property rights for pandemic drugs and vaccines. But while some executives have simply shrugged off the idea, Roche CEO Severin Schwan says it could lead to a “catastrophe.” 

Waiving patent rights would be “counterproductive” and wouldn’t translate to fixed supply shortages in the near term, Schwan told The Financial Times.

In fact, the waiver would squash innovation incentives and result in a “catastrophe” similar to East Germany’s nationalization of the drug industry, Schwan told the newspaper. Supporters of the measure may be looking to score “brownie points” with some institutions in the short term, but the waiver would have long-term consequences, Schwan added. 

“This will be harmful for my children and grandchildren when I’m not CEO any more,” Schwan told the FT. 

In a surprise move earlier this month, the Biden administration came out in favor of a proposal presented before the World Trade Organization (WTO) that would temporarily suspend patent rights for COVID-19 products. 

The pharma industry, lobbying groups and some nations have fiercely opposed the IP waiver. While intended to boost supplies of drugs and vaccines for developing nations, critics have said ridding patent protections wouldn’t fix access problems. 

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The CEOs for leading COVID-19 vaccine players Pfizer, Moderna, BioNTech have also come out in opposition to the proposal.

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla wrote last week that the scarcity of raw materials is limiting vaccine production and that waiving patent protections would only exacerbate the problem.

“It will unleash a scramble for the critical inputs we require,” Bourla wrote.

For his part, Moderna chief Stephane Bancel said he didn’t lose a minute of sleep when the U.S. endorsed sharing intellectual property. Similarly to Bourla’s point, Moderna has been racing to scale its mRNA manufacturing capacity, which largely didn’t exist prior to the pandemic. 

“You cannot go hire people who know how to make mRNA," Bancel said during a call with analysts last week. "Those people don’t exist."

While Roche hasn’t entered the COVID-19 vaccine space, it has developed a number of COVID-19 diagnostic tests over the course of the pandemic, and it’s tried to repurpose its rheumatoid arthritis medicine Actemra for hospitalized patients. The company is also collaborating with Regeneron to ramp up supply of its combo antibody treatment. Although discussions are underway, the original IP wavier proposal set forth by India and South Africa last year included COVID-19 diagnostics and medicines beyond vaccines. 

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The U.S.-backed  IP waiver has gained some support. Groups such as Oxfam and Public Citizen have lauded the Biden administration's move and thanked the administration for challenging the pharma industry's position.