Contention Swirls Around COVID Patent Waivers

Pharmaceutical Executive, Pharmaceutical Executive-08-01-2021, Volume 41, Issue 8

Report claims an imbalance in influence of tech-transfer decisions.

It didn’t take long for the backlash to emerge against the European Union’s opposition to easing intellectual property protection on COVID-19 vaccines. Reports out of Geneva, where World Trade Organization (WTO) talks are underway on patent waivers, are heavy with accusations that the EU is callously stonewalling progress and promoting diversionary tactics—with strong backing from leading pharmaceutical industry countries, including Germany, Switzerland, and the UK.

The proposal for a waiver, led by South Africa, India and Pakistan, is aimed at ramping up local production of diagnostics, drugs, and vaccines across poorer countries combating the coronavirus pandemic. It has received support in principle from the US, as well as from Egypt, Tanzania, Venezuela, Nigeria, Jamaica, China, Bangladesh, and Chad. The EU has, however, repeatedly insisted that the challenge in vaccine availability is production, not IP, and that diluting protection will prove counterproductive.

Within the WTO, the talks stumble onwards, with the latest official record noting that “disagreement persists on the fundamental question of whether a waiver is the appropriate and most effective way to address the shortage and inequitable distribution of vaccines and other COVID-related products.” The EU is, say its critics, showing little enthusiasm for discussion of the proposal, repeating circular questions to delay progress, and finding devices to defer decision-making. Meanwhile, the US position has shifted to an awkward balance on, as it were, the fence, and the EU has recruited Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Japan, Kenya, South Korea, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore, and Switzerland to push an alternative initiative focused on voluntary agreements for technology transfer, while keeping intact innovation incentives.

The readiness of the European political establishment to argue the industry’s case has come under renewed scrutiny, intensified by the context of the pandemic. Campaigning organizations skeptical of the industry’s arguments—and sometimes of its merits—have been marshalling their claims that the EU is prey to big pharma’s lobbying—all the more so because “in a time of massive windfall pandemic profits, big pharma is particularly keen to defend its patent model,” says a recent report from Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO). This calculates the industry’s lobbying firepower in Brussels alone as in excess of €40 million a year —a conservative estimate because “up-to-date lobbying information and details are hard to come by.” The weakness of EU lobby transparency rules, it says, permit the industry to keep its Brussels lobbying out of the sight of the public “in these crucial weeks.”

Based on the annual disclosure updates submitted to the EU’s transparency register, over 40 pharmaceutical firms report spending a combined $30 million per year on lobbying. Big pharma lobby groups spent an additional $10 million per year, plus nearly $15 million per year on consultancies in Brussels to influence decision-making. The main pharma lobby group, the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA), upped its 2020 spending by nearly a quarter over 2019, to $7.5 million. At the same time “there has been massive pharma lobby spending in Washington DC in the first quarter of this year as part of the effort to block generic COVID vaccines,” says CEO.

Lobby consultancies working for big pharma include Acumen, Hague Corporate Affairs, Incisive Health, Interel, Porter Novelli, RRP Group, Rud Pedersen PA, and ZN, that receive $800,000 per year from EFPIA. Johnson & Johnson spend a similar amount on consultants, and Pfizer reports spending between around $1 million per year on Brussels lobbying office and four lobbyists, as well as the same amount on contracts with Fleishman Hillard, Porter Novelli, and ZN, while Moderna “seems to rely heavily on FTI Consulting for its EU lobbying.” The CEO report also mentions former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt’s public criticism of the European Commission’s decision to take AstraZeneca to court over the company’s failure to deliver vaccines on time, and remarks that Bildt failed to mention that he works for lobby consultancy firm Kreab, which has AstraZeneca as a client.

There is a dangerous imbalance, CEO cautions, since big pharma continues to dramatically outnumber and outspend civil society actors working on public health or medicines issue, it claims. The alleged imbalance does not go unnoticed at political level in the EU. The powerful socialist S&D Group in the European Parliament has just reiterated its support for “a European approach towards the procurement, distribution and deployment of vaccines”—which boils down to a call for equality of access.

Reflector is Pharmaceutical Executive’s correspondent in Brussels