Vaccinating poorest half of humanity against coronavirus could cost less than four months big pharma profits

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Vaccinating the poorest half of humanity – 3.7 billion people – against coronavirus could cost less than the ten biggest pharmaceutical companies make in four months, Oxfam said today.

The agency is urging governments and pharmaceutical companies to guarantee that vaccines, tests, and treatments will be patent-free and equitably distributed to all nations and people, ahead of the World Health Assembly next week. The virtual meeting on Monday 18 May will be attended by health ministers from 194 countries.

The Gates Foundation has estimated that the cost of procuring and delivering a safe and effective vaccine to the world’s poorest people is $25 billion (£20 billion). Last year the top ten pharmaceutical companies made $89 billion (£72 billion) in profits – an average of just under $30 billion (£24 billion) every four months.

Oxfam warned that rich countries and huge pharmaceutical companies – driven by national or private interests – could prevent or delay the vaccine from reaching vulnerable people, especially those living in developing countries.

The EU has proposed the voluntary pooling of patents for coronavirus vaccines, treatments, and tests in their draft resolution for the World Health Assembly. If made mandatory and worldwide, this would ensure that all countries could produce, or import low cost versions, of any available vaccines, treatments, and tests. However, leaked documents reveal that the Trump administration is trying to delete references to pooled patents and insert strong language on respecting the patents of the pharmaceutical industry. This would give pharmaceutical companies exclusive rights to produce, and set prices for, any vaccines, treatments and tests they develop – even if taxpayer money has been used to fund their research and development.

Danny Sriskandarajah, Oxfam GB Chief Executive said “This global health crisis is unlike any other we have witnessed and demands an unprecedented response. A vaccine is the only long-term solution for everyone, so there has to be a guarantee that, when found, it will be distributed fairly and free of charge to people according to need not auctioned off to the highest bidder.

“We need to develop and mass produce safe and effective vaccines, tests and treatments free of patents with a transparent and fair plan for how they will be distributed worldwide. Big pharma can afford to do this, the staggering fact is that providing a vaccine to 3.7 billion people could cost less than the profits they make in just four months.”

Once vaccines or treatments are developed, there is also a high risk that rich and powerful governments will outbid poorer nations and force their way to the front of the queue, as many did in the scramble for other essential medical supplies.

In March, drug manufacturer Gilead moved to extend the monopoly on a potential treatment for the virus, and only withdrew it after a public outcry. Gilead has now donated a significant portion of its supply of remdesivir to the US government, but news reports suggest the company could make significant profits from subsequent production. Some Wall Street analysts expect Gilead to charge more than $4,000 (£3,200) per patient for the drug, even though the cost of remdesivir can be as low as $9 (£7.30) per patient.

Many poor countries are unable to access essential vaccines and medicines due to patent rules which give pharmaceutical companies monopoly rights and the power to set prices well above what they can afford. Pneumonia is the biggest killer of children under the age of five, with 2,000 children dying every day. For over a decade, millions of children have not had access to patented pneumonia vaccines manufactured by Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline due to its high cost. After years of campaigning by Médecins San Frontieres, both companies reduced their prices in 2016, but only for the very poorest countries, leaving millions of children still without access to their vaccine.

Oxfam is proposing a four-point global plan, calling for:

  1. Mandatory sharing of all Covid-19 related knowledge, data and intellectual property, and a commitment to make all public funding conditional on treatments or vaccines being made patent-free and accessible to all.
  2. A commitment to deliver additional global vaccine manufacturing and distribution capacity with funding from rich country governments. This means building factories in countries willing to share and investing now in the millions of additional health workers needed to deliver prevention, treatment, and care both now and in the future.
  3. A globally agreed, equitable distribution plan with a locked-in fairness formula so that supply is based on need, not ability to pay. Vaccines, treatments, and tests should be produced and supplied to governments and agencies at the lowest cost possible, ideally no more than $2 (£1.62) a dose for a vaccine and provided free at the point of delivery to everyone that needs it.
  4. A commitment to fix the broken system for the research and development of new medicines. The current system puts pharmaceutical profit above the health of people across the world meaning many needed put unprofitable medicines never get developed, and those that do are too often priced out of reach for the poorest countries and people.

Sriskandarajah concluded “Governments need to urgently rip up the rulebook so that they can prioritise the health of people everywhere. The priority should be patients, not patents and global cooperation is vital to ensure that no one is left behind”.


Notes to editors:

A background briefing paper is available on request

The Gates Foundation estimated the cost of producing and distributing a vaccine and have confirmed that this cost relates to the production and distribution in low and lower middle income countries only.

The 2019 profits for the top ten pharmaceutical companies can be found here

The Gilead monopoly decision can be found here, future Gilead cost of remdesivir here and remdesivir potential cost per patient here

Oxfam believes that vaccines should ideally be produced and supplied for no more than $2 (£1.62) per dose. This is a reasonable challenge to set given that new complex vaccines for big killers like pneumonia are already available for this price.

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