PARIS (AP) – In an industrial neighborhood on the outskirts of Bangladesh’s largest city stands a factory with gleaming new equipment imported from Germany, its pristine hallways lined with hermetically sealed rooms. It works at only a quarter of its capacity.
It is one of three factories The Associated Press found on three continents whose owners say they could start producing hundreds of millions of COVID-19 vaccines in no time if they only had the blueprints and technical know-how. But that knowledge belongs to the big pharmaceutical companies that produce the first three vaccines licensed by countries like Great Britain, the European Union and the United States: Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca. All factories are still waiting for answers.
In Africa and Southeast Asia, governments and aid groups, as well as the World Health Organization, are calling on pharmaceutical companies to share their patent information more widely to address a huge global deficit. in a pandemic that has already claimed more than 2.5 million lives. Pharmaceutical companies that took money from US or European taxpayers to develop vaccines at unprecedented speed say they are negotiating contracts and exclusive license agreements with producers on a case-by-case basis because they need to protect their intellectual property and ensure safety. .
Critics say this piecemeal approach is too slow at a time of urgent need to stop the virus before it mutates into even more deadly forms. The WHO asked vaccine manufacturers to share their knowledge to “dramatically increase the world’s supply.”
“If that can be done, immediately overnight every continent will have dozens of companies that could produce these vaccines,” said Abdul Muktadir, whose Incepta plant in Bangladesh already makes vaccines against hepatitis, influenza, meningitis. , rabies, tetanus and measles.
Worldwide, the supply of coronavirus vaccines is well below demand, and the limited quantity available goes to rich countries. Almost 80% of vaccines so far have been administered in just 10 countries, according to the WHO. More than 210 countries and territories with a collective population of 2.5 billion had not received a single injection until last week.
The deal-for-deal approach also means that some poorer countries end up paying more for the same vaccine as the richest countries. South Africa, Mexico, Brazil and Uganda pay different amounts per dose for the AstraZeneca vaccine, more than the governments of the European Union, according to studies and publicly available documents. AstraZeneca said the price of the vaccine will vary depending on factors such as production costs, where the injections are done, and how much countries are asking for.
“What we see today is a stampede, a survival of the fittest approach, where those with the deepest pockets, with the sharpest elbows are grabbing what’s out there and letting others die,” said Winnie Byanyima, UNAIDS Executive Director .
In South Africa, home to the world’s most worrisome COVID-19 variant, the Biovac factory has said for weeks that it is in negotiations with an anonymous manufacturer without a contract to prove it. And in Denmark, the Nordic Bavarian factory has spare capacity and the capacity to produce more than 200 million doses, but is also waiting for news from the producer of a licensed coronavirus vaccine.
Governments and health experts offer two possible solutions to the vaccine shortage: one, supported by WHO, is a group of patents inspired by a platform created for the treatments of HIV, tuberculosis and hepatitis for the voluntary exchange of technology, intellectual property and data. But not a single company has offered to share its data or transfer the necessary technology.
The other, a proposal to suspend intellectual property rights During the pandemic, it has been blocked in the World Trade Organization by the United States and Europe, headquarters of the companies responsible for creating vaccines against the coronavirus. That initiative has the support of at least 119 countries among the 164 member states of the WTO and the African Union, but vaccine manufacturers firmly oppose it.
Drug companies say that instead of lifting intellectual property restrictions, rich countries should simply give more of the vaccines they have to poorer countries. through COVAX, the public-private initiative that WHO helped create for the equitable distribution of vaccines. The organization and its partners delivered their first doses last week – in very limited quantities.
But rich countries are not willing to give up what they have. Ursula Von der Leyen, director of the European Commission, has used the phrase “global common good” to describe vaccines. Still, the European Union imposed export controls on vaccines, giving countries the power to prevent vaccines from leaving their borders in some cases.
The long-standing model in the pharmaceutical industry is that companies invest huge amounts of money and research in exchange for the right to profit from their drugs and vaccines. At an industry forum last May, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla described the idea of widely sharing intellectual property rights as “foolish” and even “dangerous.” AstraZeneca director Pascal Soriot said that if intellectual property is not protected, “there is no incentive for anyone to innovate.”
Thomas Cueni, director general of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers, called the idea of lifting patent protections “a very bad sign for the future. He points out that if he has a pandemic, his patents are worth nothing. ”
Proponents of vaccine blueprint sharing argue that, unlike most drugs, taxpayers paid billions to develop vaccines that are now “global public goods” and should be used to end the largest public health emergency ever. be remembered.
“People are literally dying because we cannot agree on intellectual property rights,” said Mustaqeem De Gama, a South African diplomat who has been deeply involved in WTO discussions.
Paul Fehlner, chief legal officer at biotech company Axcella and a supporter of the WHO patent board, said governments that invested billions of dollars in vaccine and treatment development should have demanded more from the companies they were funding. From the beginning.
“One condition of accepting taxpayer money is not treating them as dupes,” he said.
In an interview with the Journal of the American Medical Association, Dr. Anthony Fauci, America’s leading pandemic expert, said all options should be on the table, including increased aid, improved capacity production in the developing world and working with pharmaceutical companies to relax their patents.
“Rich countries, including ourselves, have a moral responsibility when there is a global outbreak like this,” Fauci said. “We have to vaccinate everyone, not just our own country.”
It is difficult to know exactly how much more vaccine it could be done around the world if restrictions on intellectual property were lifted, because surplus production capacity from factories has not been publicly shared. But Suhaib Siddiqi, former director of chemistry at Moderna, said that with the blueprint and technical advice, a modern factory should be able to get vaccine production up and running in three to four months at most.
“In my opinion, the vaccine belongs to the public,” Siddiqi said. “Any company that has experience synthesizing molecules should be able to do it.”
Back in Bangladesh, the Incepta factory tried to obtain what it needed to produce more vaccines in two ways, by offering its production lines to Moderna and by contacting a WHO partner. Moderna did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the Bangladesh plant, but CEO Stéphane Bancel told European lawmakers that the company’s engineers are fully engaged in expanding production in Europe.
“Doing more technology transfer right now could put production at great risk and increased production in the coming months,” he said. “We are very open to doing so in the future once our current sites are up and running.”
Muktadir said he was also in talks last May with CEPI, or the Coalition for Innovations in Epidemic Preparedness, one of WHO’s partners in a global effort to buy and distribute COVID-19 vaccines fairly, but it did not turn out. nothing. CEPI spokesman Tom Mooney said last year’s conversations with Incepta did not arouse interest, but that CEPI is still in talks “about matchmaking opportunities, including the possibility of using Incepta’s capacity for second wave vaccines.”
Muktadir said he fully appreciates the extraordinary scientific achievement involved in creating vaccines this year, wants the rest of the world to be able to share it, and is willing to pay a fair price.
“No one should give up their property for nothing,” he said. “A vaccine could be accessible to people: high-quality, effective vaccines.”
Cheng reported from Toronto. Jamey Keaten in Geneva, Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, Al-Emrun Garjon in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and Andrew Meldrum in Johannesburg, South Africa, contributed to this report.
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