We are in the middle of a global health pandemic. You know this already. It seems logical that the scientific solutions to COVID-19 – vaccines and treatments – need to be available to everyone. Globally. Otherwise, how can we all be safe from it?

Of course, it is not quite as simple as that. Pharmaceutical companies, governments and scientific innovators are investing a lot of money into fast-paced research that may not get the desired results.

An initiative proposed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) proposes that all countries voluntarily share their research, trial information and patent rights. While this makes life saving medical discoveries accessible to all, it also considerably reduces the amount of return that can be made from selling the patents.

Why is the World Health Organisation initiative important?

There is a very real concern that a ‘we want it first’ attitude will lead to essential scientific discoveries being sold off to the highest bidder. With subsequent shortages of medical supplies in some parts of the world. This is the opposite of a ‘global response’ to the pandemic.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) seek to avoid this with their voluntary scheme proposal. It is called the COIVD-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP) and 35 countries have already signed up. Those joining will have access to information about diagnostic tests, treatments and vaccines created to combat COVID-19. It also aims to keep production costs low and ensure that accessibility is truly worldwide.

As reported in The Telegraph, Unitaid’s director of communications, Jose Mauricio said: “Anything that’s new will always face resistance. But we will not be able to fulfil global demand for diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines if there isn’t a global approach – which is what the new call to action promotes.”

Why do large pharmaceuticals object to the idea of sharing knowledge?

Huge pharmaceutical corporations invest billions of pounds to research and develop such new innovations. Owning the intellectual property of the final product and being able to sell it to other companies to make ‘generic’ versions is how they recoup some of that money.

Chief executive of Pfizer explains: “I think it is nonsense and at this point of time it’s also dangerous. There’s a giant effort right now happening to find a solution. The risks we are taking represent billions of dollars and the chances of developing something are still not very good. So to have a discussion, to say keep in mind that if you discover a vaccine or drug, we are going to take your IP, I think it’s dangerous.”

Intellectual property rights are the essence of owning any creative work and they are often earned at great cost. There are other knock-on effects for companies who don’t own their IP outright. For example, clear ownership of IP is part of defining eligible costs for R&D tax relief in the UK.

In the UK, Oxford University and AstraZeneca are working together on a possible vaccine. AstraZeneca’s chief executive, Pascal Soriot, said: “I think IP is a fundamental part of our industry and if you don’t protect IP, then essentially there is no incentive for anybody to innovate.”

The international professional body representing the industry feel that this is an unnecessary diversion from their crucial work and that there are already other procedures in place to help less wealthy countries. The International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Assosicaions (IFPMA) said: “We have not been included in these discussions and have limited understanding of what exactly is being proposed, and how it is different from the various institutions already facilitating sharing of data, know-how” and intellectual property, it said in a statement. Voluntary patent pools already exist and many companies are already exploring collaborations and voluntary licences.”

But what about the government funding?

This is where the waters become even muddier. All over the world, pharmaceutical companies have received additional funding from their governments in order to secure a long-lasting solution to COVID-19. That’s our taxpayers’ money.

Going towards, what must surely be, universally agreed essential work. So who owns the intellectual property and the actual medical products when there is more than one investor? Usually, it’s proportional to the amount of investment. But how do you measure the fast tracking of a patent in terms of shares? Or the use of world class, university level resources at your disposal?

Is there a common sense compromise?

I would imagine that any 10 year old would conclude that everyone pooling their resources and expertise is the fastest way for us to alleviate this health crisis. There has never been a more undisputed argument for genuinely working together.

Oxfam’s Health Policy Manager, Anna Marriott, said: “The fastest way to get a vaccine to every individual, in every country, is for every company and organisation involved in research and development to share their know-how, their data, and their patents. The pharmaceutical industry’s attempt to rubbish the WHO’s initiative suggests that they care more for profits than people’s health.  Vaccine development is being bank rolled with public money – big pharma should not be allowed to treat it like a private asset.”

A UK government spokesman said: “The UK has long supported affordable and equitable access to essential medicines, including in low and middle-income countries. We continue to support public-private partnerships for product development, and approaches such as non-exclusive voluntary licensing which promote affordable access for all while also providing incentives to create life-changing vaccines.”

As reported by the Guardian, the EU’s statement says: “If we can develop a vaccine that is produced by the world, for the whole world, this will be a unique global public good of the 21st century.”

We hope our world leaders are up to the task of working through these details speedily, so we get control over and eventually eradicate COVID-19.

Jamie Smith