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Even Less Incentive For Pharma To Innovate Threatens Global Health & Our Economy

As mass vaccination in the United States beats back the fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, pharmaceutical manufacturers should be having their day in the sun. Instead, they’re again in the crosshairs of Washington, the Biden administration having just announced it will support stripping intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines.

On its own, this move will do nothing to speed global vaccine availability. Pfizer’s vaccine sources 280 components from 86 suppliers, and manufacturing, storing and distributing today’s doses also requires technical expertise and infrastructure that isn’t in place in the countries in most immediate need.

What it will do, however, is signal to manufacturers that their much-needed investments in developing and producing life-saving medications may not be as necessary from a business perspective. Why spend your own money on the research and development of vaccines to put an end to Covid-19, malaria or other life-threatening illnesses when you can just wait for someone else to do it and essentially copy their work?

This realization could not come at a worse time. Vaccines based on innovative new technologies are on the cusp of availability for diseases that have ravaged humankind for millennia, diseases like cancer and malaria that impact both rich countries and poor ones. (If nothing has demonstrated that health is wealth this year, then we will never get the message!)

Malaria, for example, puts half of the world’s total population at risk, and in 2019 killed 400,000 people. An effective vaccine would reshape history in a part of the world still recovering from an era of colonialism and outside subjugation.

Aside from the lives saved, the economic implications are staggering. In one study evaluating the cost effectiveness of vaccinating children versus infants in 41 countries with GlaxoSmithKline’s RTS,S vaccine (which has a 39% efficacy rate), it was found that “health system cost offsets were USD19.8 million and USD18.4 million, and societal cost offsets were USD65.6 million and USD61.0 million for child and infant vaccination strategy, respectively.” And those are savings with a vaccine that’s much less effective than the new, 77% effective R21 vaccine developed by scientists at the University of Oxford.

The structure of the modern healthcare ecosystem has already made a mess of the incentives facing pharmaceutical companies. So much time and effort is going into the development of very narrow end-of-life treatments that get reimbursed in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Not nearly enough is going into the innovation to truly push health care forward, and now without intellectual property protections for new vaccines, manufacturers have even less incentive to innovate.

Just imagine what would have happened if today’s manufacturers didn’t have the means or incentive to invest in the science needed to create the Covid-19 vaccines. There’s no doubt in my mind that we wouldn’t yet be discussing the possibility of 70% of the American population being at least partially vaccinated by July 4th. And I suspect that if shots weren’t already going into arms, our country would still be cashing out many more millions to hospitals, small businesses and the American people – expenses that will one day catch up.

The circumstances leading up to support for waived patent protections have been a long time coming. Calls for greater demonstrations of transparency in pharma have been happening for years. 2019 was especially fraught with people criticizing pharma over the cost of consumers’ prescription drugs, inspiring a great debate about whether there should be rebates for pharmacy benefit managers to pass down to consumers. (Ultimately, the Trump administration tossed out that corresponding piece of legislation.)

Between this intellectual property transparency news and prescription drug costs getting air time again during President Biden’s recent address to Congress, calls for change are already creeping back up. But the most important change that has to happen right now is to reflect on the past year and recognize the importance of science, the vital role that the historically criticized pharmaceutical industry has to play in public health, and the need for more – not less – incentive to innovate.

We must learn from this moment, not revert back to old criticisms and make it even more difficult for the people carrying us out of this crisis to do so again.

What do you think?

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