Free the COVID-19 vaccine

Price it sustainably and make it free at delivery

AS THE SCOURGE of COVID-19 continues to grip the world, we are all hoping that science can give us both vaccines that protect us from COVID-19 infection, as well as treatments that can effectively cure the disease.  A lot of time, money, and effort is being invested right now in the development of effective COVID-19 diagnostic tools, treatments, and vaccines.

Traditional thinking would say: “spare no expense in the research and development phases for these medical breakthroughs!” However, we do not support the notion that individuals should bear the brunt of blindly “paying any price” to any one entity, private or otherwise, that does eventually produce this breakthrough.

Rather, our country’s academic and research institutions should support the position that any COVID-19-related diagnostic tool, therapy, or vaccine ought to be considered a “public good.” Accordingly, these public goods should be sustainably priced (ensuring health budgets do not become overwhelmed), available to all, and free at the point of delivery.

The biomedical research community in Massachusetts, particularly those affiliated with nonprofit hospitals or universities that receive public dollars in the form of NIH grants, should be at the forefront of ensuring the access and affordability of COVID diagnostic tools, treatments, and vaccines. To do this, they can sign the Open COVID Pledge and make their support known. In doing so, these COVID researchers will back an effort that’s been endorsed by the World Health Organization and signed by companies like Amazon, Intel, IBM, Microsoft, and the Jet Propulsion Lab at CalTech along with a growing number of universities starting recently with New Jersey Institute of Technology.

Those individuals and organizations who make the pledge commit to make their intellectual property freely available in order to mitigate, and eventually end, the COVID-19 pandemic. They realize their commitment by legally granting free use of any intellectual property they own that is directly related to developing, manufacturing, and distributing COVID-related diagnostic tools, treatments, or vaccines from now until one year after the World Health Organization has declared that the pandemic has ended. The purpose of such a pledge is to ensure the free and open sharing of intellectual property and technology to fight COVID-19, in order to avoid exclusive control by one corporation that would hold the rights to life for anyone who requires COVID-19 vaccines and treatments.

Many companies will likely assert that their own discovery efforts and investments justify their intellectual property rights, and grant use only for a price that is acceptable to them, even if these efforts were built on previous research funded by governments. Right here in Massachusetts, for example, hundreds of millions of American tax dollars have already been invested into COVID-19 research.

In the context of a global pandemic, public health must be prioritized at all costs. Alternative models for conducting research and development have been shown to increase research efficiency and ensure equitable access to the eventual therapies, all while appropriately compensating the researchers and manufacturers that invest their time and money. Some of these “open science” models are already being employed in greater Boston. For example, the NIH-supported National COVID Cohort Collaborative (N3C)and the COVID-19 Collaboration Platform both foster clinical trial data-sharing to reduce clinical trial redundancy, reducing unnecessary time and money investments for participants.

Patent pools are another approach that have been successful in reducing research and development costs and inefficiencies, while also driving equitable access to lifesaving medical therapies and mitigating the potential for unchecked, inflated monopoly drug pricing. In a pool, all involved scientists contribute COVID-19 related intellectual property and all participants are given access. Such a model already exists. TheMedicines Patent Pool, which has existed for 10 years, has supplied 131 countries with over 11 billion doses of treatments, all while saving government health ministries billions of dollars.

At a global level, the European Union is taking the lead in fighting for pooled intellectual property ownership, whether it has been funded by public or private sources. This approach recognizes that government funds, paid for by taxpayers, have fueled the basic scientific research around COVID-19, which will pave the way for any future discoveries related to COVID-19 testing, treatment, or prevention. For instance, Chinese researchers shared their discovery of the genomic sequence for SARS-CoV-2 worldwide in January, and since then, various government and private labs have built upon this shared knowledge to learn more about the structure and function of the viral proteins, with the hope that their research can be used to help find drugs or vaccines that will neutralize the virus.

Every single one of the approved new medical entities that came on to the market in the US between 2010 and 2016 had at least some NIH funding at some point in their research. As a part of Operation Warp Speed, the US government has invested nearly $4 billion in six companies pursuing vaccines with limited oversight in how this money will be spent or how affordable and accessible the resulting vaccines will end up being.

Such a huge (and still-growing) public investment means vaccine-makers have a responsibility to give the public a fair return on their investment. The amount that any private entity receives in revenue should take into consideration not only the company’s investment in developing, testing, and marketing the product, but also the public’s investment that made the final product possible in the first place.

If we are left with a vaccine, therapy, or diagnostic that is still priced out of reach, there are existing policies that can always be employed in the context of a public health emergency, and these are policies that large pharmaceutical companies would not be happy to see employed. For instance, compulsory licensing (which is legal under US law in cases of public health emergencies) would override the monopoly pricing power of an individual company holding a patent and allow for other manufacturers to produce the treatment or vaccine at a more affordable price. Some countries have already taken steps during other public health crises to issue such compulsory licenses. While such tactics would end a company’s ability to monopolize the market for their innovation, what the world needs more than anything now is to recover from this global pandemic in a quick and equitable fashion.

Nobody can say for sure how long this pandemic will last and how exactly it will end. Currently, with its huge number of world-class biomedical researchers, Massachusetts is at the cutting edge of developing the diagnostic tools, treatments, and vaccines which have the potential to ameliorate, or even end, the scourge of COVID-19.

Meet the Author

Chris Noble

Regional organizer, FreeTheVaccine Campaign
Meet the Author

Rishi Khettry

Regional organizer, FreeTheVaccine Campaign
Meet the Author

Karry Muzzey

Regional organizer, FreeTheVaccine Campaign
Meet the Author

Jack Killion

Regional organizer, FreeTheVaccine Campaign
The #FreeTheVaccine campaign calls on our state’s biomedical researchers and institutions to sign the Open Covid Pledge, publicly committing to making their discoveries freely accessible throughout the world. This action would save millions of lives, demonstrate the true leadership of our biomedical research community, and put that community at the cutting edge of ensuring equitable access to the people’s vaccine.

Christopher Noble, Rishi Khettry, Karry Muzzey, and Jack Million are regional organizers for the FreeTheVaccine Campaign.