'Betrayal of public trust': Pfizer under fire for resisting Paxlovid compulsory license

Are a pharma company's intellectual property rights also a human right? That's the question at the center of a Pfizer controvery in The Dominican Republic.

A slew of advocacy groups, including Trinity Health and Common Spirit Health, have signed an open letter to Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla rebuking the company’s reported claim that its intellectual property is a human right. That claim, the groups say, came in response to a push for a compulsory license to Pfizer's COVID-19 antiviral in The Dominican Republic, which would allow for sales of generics without the company's permission.

Last November, Pfizer entered a voluntary license with the Medicines Patient Pool (MPP), a program that works with generic drugmakers to provide greater access to medicines in low- and middle-income countries. The agreement was intended to ensure ample worldwide supply of generic versions of the pill, along with provisions restricting the sale and usage.

The license covers 95 countries but not The Dominican Republic.

In response, advocacy group Knowledge Ecology International (KEI) took issue with the exclusion and sought a compulsory license in the country, Stat News reported in December.

Pfizer responded with several arguments against issuing the license, including uncertainty that Paxlovid is “the treatment of excellence” for COVID-19. 

But one of Pfizer's arguments really grabed the advocates' attention. 

The government, before granting such a license, must establish the "emergency" or "matter of national security" that merits the move, Pfizer argued in its response, which KEI posted online.

"Only then, the State has the power to suspend some of its obligations in terms of human rights, rights recognized by the Constitution," the company said.

The advocacy groups, which also invest in the company, found the argument “deeply disturbing."

“As investors who have been engaging the company on access concerns for many years, we are deeply disturbed by Pfizer’s invocation of human rights as a tactic to protect its patent on Paxlovid and view it as a stark betrayal of public trust and Pfizer’s corporate social contract," the groups wrote in the letter to Bourla.

A Pfizer spokeswoman told Stat the company did not make a human rights claim.

Instead, the legal brief indicated that “the right to intellectual property is a fundamental right enshrined by the Dominican Republic’s constitution, protected both for individuals and legal entities,” the company told Stat. “We stressed that such rights cannot be restricted arbitrarily, unjustifiably, unnecessarily, disproportionally or capriciously- it requires justification found in law and demonstrated by facts, susceptible to review.”

Pfizer expects to reel in $22 billion in Paxlovid sales in 2022, based on contracts that were signed as of early February.