Vaccine activists accuse Big Pharma of relying on public money

Waiving patent rights may have chilling effect on medicine development, industry warns

The drugs industry was accused by Médecins sans Frontières on Wednesday of showing little interest in investing in vaccines unless and until it was funded with public money.

Speaking before an Oireachtas committee on the issue of the waiver of intellectual property rights to Covid-19 vaccines, pharmaceutical industry spokesman Oliver O'Connor said that introducing uncertainty on rules around patent protections would create uncertainty, "and uncertainty regarding the rules of the game will damage the ability of companies to raise money for risky research and development".

He said a study by the European Patent Office suggested such a move would lead to a 37 per cent drop in private-sector investment in research and development activities.

Dimitri Eynikel, Médecins san Frontières' European Union advocate and policy adviser, accepted that pharmaceutical research and development was a risky activity. But, he said, "we have seen little investment by pharma [in vaccines] except where there is an outbreak and significant public funding becomes available".


Public money

Addressing the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Oxfam Ireland's chief executive Jim Clarken said the issue here was the "risk capital had been front-loaded" with about $93 billion (€88 billion) of public money invested in Covid vaccine programmes up front or through advance purchase agreements.

The two charities, along with NUI Maynooth law professor Aisling McMahon and Dr Christine Kelly, a consultant in infectious diseases at St Vincent's University Hospital Dublin, were urging the committee to advise the Government to press their EU partners to approve a temporary suspension of IP rights to Covid-19 vaccines.

They argued that it was needed to enable low- and middle-income countries to be confident of their ability to adequately provide vaccination for their populations.

Prof McMahon said the campaign for a Trips waiver emerged because of the failure of industry and governments to support a previous voluntary approach to technology transfer.

Mr O'Connor, chief executive of the Irish Pharmaceutical Healthcare Association, who appeared alongside Matt Moran, director of Ibec's BioPharmaChem Ireland, said supply was not currently an issue, with as many as two billion vaccine doses currently available.

He noted that the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention had asked that all Covid-19 vaccine donations be paused until later this year because hesitancy and logistical hurdles across the continent were hampering administration.


However, Green Party senator Róisín Garvey said the figures being quoted by the vaccine manufacturers included vaccines that were not as effective and which were no longer being used in countries like Ireland.

Addressing questions about pharma company profits, Mr O’Connor said the value generated by vaccines accrues to patients, the healthcare system, society more broadly and to pharmaceutical companies, and “incalculably outstrips the investment by and value to companies”.

Senator Garvey said the pharma industry “had had the same talking points” during a multiyear debate on providing generic access to HIV and Aids therapies.

“Allowing generic products was what was needed to get sufficient medicines, to lower cost and to save many lives,” she said.

To suggestions that drug companies might be more reluctant to invest in R&D in the event of a waiving of patent rights, Sinn Féin’s Louise O’Reilly told Mr O’Connor: “Perhaps your industry is a little more resilient that you give it credit for.”

Dominic Coyle

Dominic Coyle

Dominic Coyle is Deputy Business Editor of The Irish Times