With well over 50 million Covid-19 cases worldwide and more than 1.259 million deaths—about 20% of each in the United States—justice campaigners on Monday responded to promising new data from Pfizer's coronavirus vaccine trial with both tempered enthusiasm and calls for ensuring global accessibility.
"Pfizer and BioNTech need to share this vaccine with the world, not hoard it for profit."
—Heidi Chow, Global Justice Now
The American pharmaceutical company Pfizer announced Monday that a phase 3, late-stage study found their potential Covid-19 vaccine—developed in collaboration with German drugmaker BioNTech—was more than 90% effective in preventing the disease in participants without evidence of prior infection.
"This means we are one step closer to potentially providing people around the world with a much-needed breakthrough to help bring an end to this global pandemic," Pfizer chairman and CEO Albert Bourla said in statement. "This is a first but critical step in our work to deliver a safe and effective vaccine."
Some campaigners such as Michael Carome, director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group, argued that "the release of preliminary and incomplete clinical trial data by press release to the public is bad science" and emphasized the need for trial results to be independently reviewed and scrutinized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Others focused on access. Heidi Chow, pharmaceuticals campaigner at Global Justice Now, said that "it's positive news that Pfizer may have found an effective Covid-19 vaccine, but right now it will only be for the few. We need governments to step in and make it available for the many—including by suspending patent rights."
ABC News reported that Pfizer is on track to apply this month for emergency-use approval from the FDA and that World Health Organization (WHO) senior adviser Dr. Bruce Aylward said the vaccine could "fundamentally change the direction of this crisis" as soon as March, when the United Nations agency hopes to start vaccinating high-risk groups.
However, as Chow highlighted, even if the vaccine is determined effective enough to disseminate, there are production limitations.
"If we continue to leave everything to the market, it will artificially restrict the number of doses the world can produce," Chow warned. "As it stands, Pfizer and BioNTech can only produce 50 million doses for 2020 and 1.3 billion for 2021—this is a two-dose vaccine, that means only 25 million can receive it this year and just 650 million people next year."
"This is nowhere near enough to meet global demand, especially when most of these doses have already been hoarded by rich countries through advanced purchase deals leaving nothing for lower income countries," she continued. "We are heading towards artificially created scarcity for this vaccine, which is completely unacceptable in a global pandemic."
According to Chow: "Pfizer and BioNTech need to share this vaccine with the world, not hoard it for profit. That should mean putting it into the WHO's global pool so that the technological know-how and patent rights are shared to enable multiple manufacturers to produce it as fast as possible."
"Since they won't, the World Trade Organization needs to act to suspend patents on all Covid-19 medicines, as South Africa and India have proposed," the campaigner added. "This is a race against time and we cannot allow the pursuit of profit to triumph over human need."
The London-based group's director, Nick Dearden, echoed that message on Twitter:
When #Pfizer was asked to join a WHO collaboration to produce a #COVID19 vaccine without monopoly prices, their CEO responded: "I think it’s nonsense, and… dangerous". They are committed to sky high profits. We need a #PeoplesVaccine (1/3) https://t.co/5dRSrgutAG
— Nick Dearden (@nickdearden75) November 9, 2020
If the vaccine proves successful, countries should override patent rules and produce generic version immediately. We should support suspending the TRIPS agreement, as proposed by India and S Africa, to make this easier. No profiteering from Covid. (3/3) https://t.co/pRbkAdqmsO
— Nick Dearden (@nickdearden75) November 9, 2020
The voluntary information-sharing scheme launched earlier this year by the WHO and Costa Rica has drawn criticism from Big Pharma executives, including Bourla, Dearden noted. As The Telegraph reported in May:
But while pharmaceutical giants AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson said they supported efforts to ensure the "equitable distribution" of vaccines and treatments, their executives condemned the concept of intellectual property (IP) pools during a press briefing...
"I think it is nonsense and at this point of time it's also dangerous," said Dr. Albert Bourla, chief executive of Pfizer. "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," he said.
Pascal Soriot, chief executive of AstraZeneca, who have partnered with Oxford University to develop and distribute a potential vaccine and received millions in funding from the U.K. government, added: "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."
Global Justice Now pointed out on Monday that unlike their competitors AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, and GSK, Pfizer and BioNTech "have made no pledges not to profit from this vaccine during the pandemic," even though the latter has received public funding from both the German government and the European Union.
AstraZeneca came under fire last month after the Financial Times reported on internal documents suggesting the U.K. company may declare an end to the pandemic—and thus begin profiting from a successful Covid-19 vaccine—as soon as July 2021. According to The Hill, an AstraZeneca spokesperson responded by saying in part that "we continue to operate in that public spirit and we will seek expert guidance, including from global organizations, as to when we can say that the pandemic is behind us."
"Access and availability of a vaccine cannot be left in the hands of traditional market forces, to be defined by rules of supply and demand."
In a joint statement Monday, U.N. experts and members of a human rights working group warned that "isolationist health policies and procurement are in contradiction with international human rights standards." They collectively reminded the international community that "a message, often repeated in 2020, remains essential: No one is secure until all of us are secure."
"The emerging intellectual property disputes over patents as well as the possibility of having oligopolistic manufacturers could... hinder the development and production of Covid-19 vaccines as well as the availability, accessibility, and affordability of the vaccine at national and international levels," the experts said. "Pharmaceutical companies have responsibilities regarding the realization of the right to health, in particular in relation to access to medicines, including vaccines."
They declared that "the race for a Covid-19 vaccine must be, above all, a race to prevent more deaths and to protect the human kind, without discrimination on any ground and without consideration for national origin. This race, which serves as a light of hope in dark social and economic times, should be anchored in the essentiality of international cooperation and assistance and in the conviction that sharing the benefits of scientific progress is a human right as central as the rights to health and to life."
"Access and availability of a vaccine cannot be left in the hands of traditional market forces, to be defined by rules of supply and demand," the group added. "Market solutions alone will not efficiently contain this pandemic nor prioritize the protection of millions of people in situations of vulnerability."
This post has been updated with comment from U.N. experts and members of a human rights working group.