Coronavirus News Asia

Drug firms pressed to drop patents to fight Covid-19


As the coronavirus pandemic continues to claim victims around the world, the race is on to produce the right medicines to fight it. This includes developing a vaccine to stop people from falling ill in the first place, as well as providing testing kits and drugs to treat those who fall ill with Covid-19, the respiratory disease the virus causes.

In normal times, most pharmaceutical companies would not naturally collaborate in these endeavors. Developing new drugs requires huge amounts of investment. Drug companies seek and enforce patents to protect these investments, which give them a monopoly on drugs they develop. During this time, they can charge high prices for these medicines.

Naturally, at this time of global crisis, calls are growing for these companies to waive any proprietary rights they may have in order to facilitate the dissemination of drugs and devices that are useful in the fight against Covid-19. Some companies have taken the initiative themselves, such as US firm AbbVie. Last month, it announced that it would stop enforcing its patent on Kaletra, an HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) medicine that is being tested for effectiveness in the treatment of Covid-19, anywhere in the world.

Others, however, are still fighting for exclusivity. For instance, the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China recently filed for a national patent on the use of remdesivir, an experimental antiviral drug used to treat Covid-19 and first developed by US company Gilead.

Gilead also came under fire when it applied to US regulators for “orphan status” for remdesivir. Under US law, pharmaceutical companies that develop treatments for diseases that affect fewer than 200,000 people enjoy seven years of market exclusivity. But after a public backlash, Gilead released a note saying it would rescind this application for orphan status.

Both the Wuhan Institute and Gilead have acted legally. But is their decision to use intellectual-property law to limit other people from accessing their drugs ethical?

US pharmaceutical firm AbbVie has dropped its patent rights to a potential Covid-19 treatment. Photo: Tannen Maury/EPA-EFE

Reducing drug prices

If drug companies fail to waive their legal exclusivity rights, there are mechanisms in the law to balance these rights with overarching public interest. One instrument is the compulsory license of patents. This allows companies that do not own the intellectual property of a drug to manufacture legally and sell copycat versions of it during emergencies.

The major international trade treaties allow governments to grant compulsory licenses over the use of a particular drug within that country’s national borders, subject to certain conditions.



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