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…it’s still pharma

Surely right now Big Pharma should be riding high in the public zeitgeist? After all the speed at which we now have a range of vaccines that are able to save hundreds of thousands, if not millions of lives to protect us all from COVID is a wondrous thing. Our scientists – all STEM role model superstars – have done something never before achieved in the history of the world. While COVID, as a simple/complex virus, has no ability to distinguish between the developed and developing world, the ability to treat and prevent COVID morbidity and mortality is differentiated between these two economic extremes. The wealthy countries can, the less wealthy can’t to anywhere near the same degree.

Recent months have seen us exposed to vaccine nationalism, which is not entirely surprising given the political imperative to show you are managing the crisis well. Even Biden is on this bandwagon to a degree. It’s important in politics to be seen to be able to organise the proverbial ‘knees up in a gymnasium’. The current recipe to get re-elected is, to paraphrase Bill Clinton, ‘it’s the virus stupid!’ I get that nations will want to vaccinate their own people first, so there has to be more radical thinking around how to prevent COVID further dividing the globe into the vaccine haves and have nots. Actually I think the solution here is not that radical…just share the intellectual property (IP) making it possible for countries to manufacture their own.

India in crisis

And this is where big pharma comes unstuck. So far the developed world, which has the vaccine IP, is refusing to share it with the developing world who are having to wait their turn with clogged manufacture and logistics backlogs only furthering delays. Case in point here is India. Are we happy to see the misery that is India every night on our screens or in our news feeds? This tragedy would be greatly ameliorated by mass and rapid vaccine roll-out made possible by local manufacture. India is a huge player in world pharmaceutical generics and is well capable of delivering vaccines once they have the recipe. The same goes for many other COVID ravaged nations including South Africa and Brazil. The primary argument that Big Pharma puts up against sharing the IP is the money they’ve had to spend in R&D to produce it.

The fact is in many cases it has been public money – provided by taxpayers – that has bankrolled the vaccines. Big Pharma are overstepping the mark by trying to hold the IP close to their chest and running this line of argument. Furthermore production of pharmaceuticals and vaccines in particular have a large element of social license attached. After all it is the government regulator, be that the FDA in the US, or the TGA in Australia, that decide whether a drug or vaccine can be used. Within this regulatory framework experts look at the efficacy and side effects of the drug and weigh this against the benefits among other things.

All drugs and vaccines come with risks and side effects. Big Pharma relies on the regulator standing in the stead of the public interest, to approve their products with the side effects noted. In other words regulators give license knowing that drugs will harm and kill in some cases. They weigh this up and determine whether these risks are acceptable. The old risk-reward equation. This is the social license in operation. In many cases with vaccines, countries also indemnify the vaccine manufacturer against legal action. Once again a social license issue.

So Big Pharma’s ‘protect at all costs’ default mode should be challenged on order that the whole world gets the benefit of the great work of the scientists; as and when they need it. First challengers off the rank have to be those very STEM superstars who produced it. Whether they realise it or not they hold great power. If we can extrapolate any lessons from small pharma i.e. Breaking Bad, we know that Walter White aka Heisenberg was left alone to cook because his product was so good the proprietor of Los Pollos Hermanos had no other options but to tolerate him. Same applies to our leading scientists. We can only hope that their voices will be heard before more misery blights the developing world. The world needs the scientific community to speak morals to power right now. If not I am left wondering how the IP deadlock can be broken. In such legal matters I can only defer to Saul Goodman!