Mar 2023: Turning Pandemic Lessons Into Action

29 Mar 2023

This month marked three years since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. Officially, more than 6 million people globally have lost their lives, many because of a systemically inequitable rollout of vaccines, tests, and treatments. In The New York Times’ Next Pandemic newsletter, Priti Krishtel and I spoke to Alexandra Sifferlin about how we have to do more than just note this passage of time. We have to look back, acknowledge where we failed as a global society, and pave a more equitable path going forward.

There have been two occasions to do just that in the last 10 days. First, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions held a hearing questioning Moderna’s CEO about potential price hikes on its government-funded vaccine. Then, just this week, I testified at the U.S. International Trade Commission’s public hearing on the need to extend the recent WTO Ministerial Decision that allows countries to bypass patents on vaccines to COVID-19, tests, and treatments.

The two hearings provided a look under the hood of the U.S’s leading role in shaping whether the global South is able to access essential medical equipment. Taken together, they confirmed a few axioms that need to be etched in our collective memory going forward:

  • When providing pharmaceutical companies like Moderna with significant public funding, the U.S. government has leverage and must use it. Handing over taxpayer money with no strings attached is a dereliction of duty.
  • Having a handful of rich countries, including the U.S, use the intellectual property system to determine for the rest of the globe what they can and cannot do in a pandemic does not make any of us safer.
  • Companies and countries in the global South have the capability to manufacture vaccines, tests, and treatments. Giving them the freedom and know-how to do so would have changed the course of this pandemic.

The conversation around the failed global response to COVID-19 has strong parallels with the recent surge in consciousness around the need for drug patent reform in the U.S. In both, it is becoming widely acknowledged that a broken and outdated IP system allows for monopolistic actors to prioritize excessive profits over public health. Now is the time to take that understanding and turn it into action.

What we’re doing

As I mentioned above, this week I testified at the USITC’s public hearing on the need to waive intellectual property rights blocking access to COVID-19 diagnostics and therapeutics. Speaking on the same panel as representatives from Eli Lilly, Gilead, and Merck, I explained why this conversation needs to be grounded in a proper understanding of the TRIPS Agreement’s history and how it was forced upon the global South.

While we need real policy solutions to fix our global medicines system, publicly holding bad actors accountable is an important first step. I spoke to Salon about why, regardless of the outcome, Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Senate HELP Committee hearings are valuable in putting information into the public record.

Lastly, a quick reminder of the surging momentum around the need for domestic patent reform. In the last two months, The New York Times put AbbVie’s overpatenting of Humira on the front page and veteran Senators and Congressmembers called for action against Merck’s abusive patenting tactics on Keytruda. All this attention is coming at just the right time, as the patent protections on seven of the 10 top selling drugs in the U.S. are supposed to expire.

Relevant news rundown

Regeneron is poised to convert a large portion of patients taking its blockbuster, Eylea, for retinal diseases to a higher dosage version. Despite being the exact same drug, this higher dosage will allow the company to extend the drug’s patent life and recapture the market. In a sign of a shifting public conversation, even the unabashedly-corporate friendly Wall Street Journal is calling this out as “the big-pharma playbook.”

Our #Access2Meds colleagues in India scored a massive win for tuberculosis patients as the Indian Patent Office rightfully denied Johnson & Johnson’s attempt to extend patent protection via routine, commonly practiced pharmaceutical science.

Something hopeful

Thanks to public pressure, all three members of the American insulin cartel capped out-of-pocket costs on their major insulin products in a matter of days. It is a historic victory, one that affirms the power of patient-led advocacy (credit to leaders like T1International) and will save peoples’ lives.

Just as with vaccine inequity, it’s not enough to simply reflect on and remember the tragic history of ever-rising insulin prices. We have to examine it, redesign systems, and shift culture so it doesn’t repeat itself.

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medicine system for all.