March 10, 2023
COVID-19: Is the pandemic over, and have we learned from our experiences?
While vaccines are considered essential tools in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, a few pharmaceutical companies are in a position to control their production and their trade, thereby making unlimited profits while excluding more than 2.5 billion people from their access. Doctors of the World challenges this monopoly by launching a legal action with the European Patent Office.
AN OBVIOUS LACK OF INVENTIVE STEP, A CRITERION OF PATENTABILITY YET REQUIRED
Two years after the start of the pandemic, only 11% of people living in low-income countries have received a complete primary vaccination, compared to 75% in high-income countries, of which 44% have even received a booster dose. Such unequal access to the vaccine is notably due to the monopoly of certain pharmaceutical companies, including Pfizer/BioNTech, which has filed several patent applications. That is what Médecins du Monde is contesting before the European Patent Office by filing two third-party observations on the grounds that the patent applications filed by BioNTech show a manifest lack of inventive step, a required patentability criterion.
Doctors of the World considers that the two claimed patents are not merited because the necessary science to create the vaccine already existed. BioNTech simply directly applied knowledge derived from the current state of the art of mRNA vaccines and coronavirus vaccination (knowledge produced through the work of researchers from the public sector and universities) to a new virus, Sars-CoV-2. In other words, it only took Pfizer/BioNTech a few weeks to produce its vaccine because the necessary science was pre-existing.
UNLIMITED PROFITS FOR A FEW PRIVATE COMPANIES TO THE DETRIMENT OF THE GENERAL INTEREST
The public sector has provided more than $50 billion to private companies to support research and development of Covid-19 vaccines 1 while bearing the financial risk. Today, Pfizer/BioNTech controls 70% of the European Covid-19 vaccine market, with a 2022 global sales forecast for vaccines of $32 billion for Pfizer and a forecast for BioNTech hovering between $13 and $17 billion euros.”Billions have been invested in health, but the ‘whatever it takes’ policy adopted by governments towards multinational pharmaceutical companies is proving to have a significant cost for society as a whole“, denounces Chloé Forette, Drug Prices mission Advocacy Coordinator at Doctors of the World France.
“Paying 20 euros per dose may seem acceptable, but, given the public investment in R&D and production, knowing that the cost of producing a dose is between 1 and 2.5 euros, this situation is problematic and weighs heavily on the national budget. More than 4 billion euros could have been saved and redirected to our public health system last year and this year”, continues Théau Brigand, Head of the Drug Prices mission at Doctors of the World France. Because the research and development of vaccines have been massively supported by public resources, it is time for European states to regain control and allow a more equitable sharing of public investments. The government can still intervene and rebalance the use of resources between the interests of a few private companies and the general interest.
Global, equitable access to COVID vaccines is the best chance the world has to slow this pandemic, save lives, and secure global economic recovery. The actions of Pfizer and BioNTech will have severe impacts on the health, social and economic wellbeing of billions of people around the world. Doctors of the World firmly stands for vaccine equity and will continue to fight for it in court.
1. Global Health Centre. (2021). COVID-19 Vaccine Purchases and Manufacturing Agreements. Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies.
2. Pfizer and BioNTech 2021 Annual Financial Reports
3. “How to Make Enough Vaccine for the World in One Year”, Public Citizen and Imperial College London May 26, 2021.
4. “Vaccine Equity and Speed”, United Nations Data Platform 2022.