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OPINION

Put public health over profits

Letting pharmaceuticals hold monopolies through patents on any new drugs once they hit the market could lead to exorbitant prices and prolong the coronavirus pandemic.

Gilead Sciences headquarters in Foster City, California.
Gilead Sciences headquarters in Foster City, California.David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

As the coronavirus tears across the globe, it’s not the time to debate whether pharmaceutical corporations should be able to hold intellectual property rights on any new treatments, vaccines, or diagnostics that are approved to fight the disease.

They should not. And the US government, which is contributing billions of taxpayer dollars to the development of new COVID-19 products, shouldn’t allow them.

Pharmaceutical corporations often claim they need to charge high prices to pay for research and development, but independent research has shown new medicines can be created for much less than the $2 billion figure pharma likes to tout. Plus, the private sector isn’t creating these drugs or taking on the risk alone; the United States spends more than $40 billion annually subsidizing biomedical R&D to support companies’ new medicines.

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Letting companies hold monopolies through patents on any new drugs once they hit the market could lead to exorbitant prices, including for the taxpayers who funded their creation; block the manufacture of more affordable generic or biosimilar versions; contribute to insufficient supply; and prolong the pandemic. We’re already seeing the negative impact of having only a limited number of manufacturers making products like 3M’s N95 masks and Medtronic’s ventilators, which is resulting in shortages, export/import restrictions, and high prices.

At Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières, we often see the effects of this patent system at play for the people we serve in low-resource and conflict-affected countries. We don’t have the medicines, diagnostics, or vaccines needed to prevent and treat disease because the prices are too high or the medical tools simply aren’t available, as oftentimes companies invest in only those products that will make them the most money regardless of public health needs.

While many people living in the United States and other developed countries have already experienced firsthand the burden of high drug prices, we fear that the context of the COVID-19 global pandemic will exacerbate that challenge. Allowing pharmaceutical corporations to patent the medicines and vaccines developed in this rush for medical tools that help us to respond to COVID-19 can result in high prices and limited availability when they have a monopoly on production.

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Most of the current COVID-19 vaccine candidates are supported by public dollars. It was announced earlier this month that Moderna Therapeutics’ COVID-19 vaccine will receive $483 million from the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority.

Gilead Sciences, which has a potential COVID-19 treatment candidate in clinical trials called remdesivir, also relied on research funding from US taxpayers, and it couldn’t have developed this potential treatment without support from various governments, trial participants from different countries, and the participation of health organizations, including MSF. Gilead recently tried to use a special designation from the US Food and Drug Administration that would have given them an invincible monopoly in the US market for remdesivir for seven years, but the company gave up these efforts following pressure from the public and groups like MSF.

If companies don’t do the right thing, governments should be prepared to suspend and override patents.

For one, the US government could use legal tools like compulsory licenses on COVID-19 products to boost the total supply of a desperately needed medicine by allowing lower-cost versions to be made while the name-brand medicine is still under patent. Canada, Chile, Ecuador, Germany, Israel, and Brazil have already taken steps to do this.

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Secondly, US lawmakers must start demanding through concrete and enforceable conditions that any new COVID-19 products created with taxpayer funds be affordable and accessible to global markets.

These are uncertain times, but what can’t remain uncertain is how prepared we are for the next stages of this pandemic.

Billions of taxpayer dollars — with no strings attached — have already been committed for medical R&D in federal COVID-19 spending bills, with likely more on the way. Pharmaceutical corporations should be paid for their work, but carrying on with “business as usual,” where they have a monopoly to control production and set prices at whatever the market will bear, will have deadly implications. Let’s remove as an option the choice of profits over public health.

Dana Gill is the US policy adviser for Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières’ Access Campaign.