On Intellectual Property Rights, Access to Medicines and Vaccine Imperialism

Amaka Vanni reflects on the role of international trade and investment law in the creation of intellectual property rights that sacrifice the life and health of the poor and racialised at the altar of corporate profitability.

TWAILR: Reflections #32/2021

While the coronavirus (COVID-19) disease continues to destroy human lives and economies, the response to this paralyzing global pandemic has also brought to the fore the ingenuity of humanity. Within a few months of the pandemic, researchers in China, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States shared information on the genome sequence of COVID-19 to reveal the structures of key proteins that make up the new coronavirus. This particular scientific breakthrough could have taken years had these scientists not jointly collaborated by sharing findings and expertise. Furthermore, as COVID-19 devastation worsened and its global impact became known, partnerships emerged between several governments, research institutions, international organizations, private sector actors, and philanthropic institutions for the development of vaccines targeting the virus. Triumphantly, in the twelve months since COVID-19 was first detected, several vaccine candidates are being rolled out and many more are in clinical trial stages.  

While the response to COVID-19 has shown what can be accomplished when the world works together, it has also underscored three interrelated points. First, the neoliberal framework – including the critical role intellectual property (IP) law plays in constituting this form of civilisation – is an unsuitable model for delivering the goods needed to respond to global health emergencies. The current economic/market system does not allow for equitable responses to infectious diseases, particularly access to sufficient medical and health resources. This inequity was obvious in the early days of the pandemic when test kits, PPEs, and ventilation machines were being distributed on the basis of who could pay the most rather than who needed them the most. Second, the beggar-thy-neighbor response currently adopted by developed countries hurts everyone because failing to stop the spread of the virus globally allows more mutations, which makes existing vaccines less effective. As COVID-19 has shown, no one is safe until everyone is safe. Yet, despite this warning, the hoarding of vaccines by developed countries continues unabated and speaks to the wider racist capitalist system we live in. If anything, this crude accumulation of vaccines reinforces North-South economic and political dominance and marks, as Onur Ince observes, the conceptual locus of political violence operative in the global genealogy of capitalism. 

Third, while COVID-19 may endanger us all, it is far more costly to some than others. Numerous reports have shown how black and brown people are most impacted by the pandemic. In the United States, for example, indigenous Americans have the highest COVID-19 mortality rates nationwide while  African American communities have COVID-19 mortality that is 2.3 times higher than the rate for Asians and Latinxs, and 2.6 times higher than the rate for Whites. Similar data is also emerging in the UK where people from black and minority ethnic groups are at greater risk of dying from coronavirus. This means those groups suffer higher loss of life compared to other racial groups due to inequities in healthcare access as well as higher rate of pre-existing conditions. In other parts of the world, the most vulnerable and the economically marginalized such as those working in the informal sector and living in shanty towns are feeling the effects of the pandemic the most. In Latin America and the Caribbean, 70 per cent of domestic workers have been affected by the pandemic where most have stopped receiving income. In Ghana, residents of slums at Old Fadama – a suburb in Accra – were made homeless when the government demolished their homes. The ensuing homelessness means there is little to no space of observing social distancing rules, access to running water and access to other resources to practice basic hygiene. Meanwhile in India, the pandemic has unsurprisingly hit the country along caste lines where the Dalits are most impacted because many are poor and have limited access to healthcare. 

As Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw reminds us, the high number of minority deaths is not new. Rather, this crisis simply amplified racism and other forms of structural inequality as a pre-existing condition – an intersectional issue – where those disproportionately hurt are those who are already structurally marginalized. Thus, while recognising a broken global IP regime that triggered the scramble for vaccines, the racialized impact of the pandemic cannot be ignored, and it points to the entangled roots of race and capitalism. 

Patent Profiteering protest
Protesters picketing outside the Johnson & Johnson offices during the Global Day of Action for a People’s Vaccine (Gallo Images via Getty Images)

The rest of this analysis takes a close look at some of the legal, political and economic forces that have animated IP rights and access to COVID-19 vaccine. It will focus on how the entanglement of corporate capture of global IP regime, state complicity and vaccine imperialism have come together to shape public health responses to the pandemic. It underscores how the law, in this case international IP law, consistently shelters capital and operates as an expression to further corporate pharmaceutical interests. If there is a lesson to be gleaned from this pandemic, it is that intellectual property is not failing us but is functioning the way it is set up to do. As the history of IP globalization has shown, the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS Agreement) is a transplant of the Euro-American model of property, driven by multinational corporations who used their respective national governments to underwrite and export their domestic IP claims. Therefore, it is unsurprising that this international legal regime employed to advance the interests of particular classes, nations and regions at the expense of others continues to reproduce extreme inequality with human costs. 

TRIPS Agreement and Access to Medicines 

Intellectual property rights (IPRs) are time-limited legal rights granted to inventors and creators. IPRs include copyrights, trademarks, patents, trade secrets, and geographical indications, while protected subject-matters include, but are not limited to, brands, inventions, designs, and biological materials. Importantly, IPRs overlap as a product may be covered by a series of rights. For example, a pharmaceutical medicine, defined by Britannica as a ‘substance used in the diagnosis, treatment, or prevention of disease’, is protected by patents, trademarks, and trade secrets. Patents are the most common form of IPR used for the protection of innovation in pharmaceuticals. Patents grant inventors limited market exclusivity for their inventions, and, in exchange, the inventor must disclose sufficient information such that competitors will be able to step into the market. This disclosure allows a competitor to make preparation to enter the market at the end of the monopoly period. Due to this legally-mandated exclusivity, patent owners – usually multinational corporations – have the right to prevent others from making, using, or selling a patented invention. The TRIPS Agreement, concluded as part of the Uruguay Round of multilateral trade negotiation and in force since 1995, provides a minimum of 20 years patent protection. The belief is that the duration allows corporations to recoup the expenses of developing, testing and upscaling an innovative pharmaceutical product. 

Protests against the patenting of HIV/AIDs life-saving drugs in India. Photo by Guddu.

From the onset, the TRIPS IP regime created imbalance between innovation, market monopoly, and medicines access, because it failed to take into consideration the health burden, development needs and local conditions of the various countries that make up the WTO. This has led to several issues. First, the market monopoly of IP rights, which allows the corporation to set the market for drugs, has created a privileged societal class with access to lifesaving medication distinguishing them from those excluded from access to available medications. This phenomenon is vividly illustrated in the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1990s and early 2000s. While HIV/AIDS patients in developed countries were able to afford antiretroviral (ARVs) treatments, which had been developed, approved and patented as early as 1987, many patients in Africa and other parts of the developing world could not afford the approximately USD 12,000 per annum treatment at that time. By 2001, approximately 2.4 million people in the region had died of AIDS. The South African government intervened to reduce the cost of ARVs by amending its domestic patent laws to allow the authorization of parallel imports of patented pharmaceuticals and to encourage the use of generic drugs, but it was sued by the US industry group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA). Though the lawsuit was eventually dropped, it highlights the measures pharmaceutical corporations, backed by some national governments, are willing to take to protect their profits at the cost of human lives. Significantly, we see how law (or the threat of legal action) is used not only to protect and expand the profitability of a certain kind of property but, as Anjali Vats and Deidré Keller have taught us, also reveals IP law’s racial investments in whiteness and its continuing implications for racial (in)equality, particularly in the way it informs systems of ownership, circulation, and distribution of knowledge. Similarly, Natsu Saito takes up the analysis of IP, race and capitalism by theorizing some of the ways in which ‘value’ in IP law concentrated in the hands of large corporations is calculated in terms of its profitability rather than what it contributes to the well-being of society. However, the proverbial chickens have come home to roost as even rich countries are beginning to feel the bite of the dysfunctional IP system. 

The issue of excessive pricing for medicines is a growing problem in developed countries as well and has now become the single biggest category of healthcare spending in these states, particularly the US. An empirical report by I-MAK reveals how excessive pharmaceutical patenting is extending monopolies and driving up drug prices. The report, for example, notes that over half of the top twelve drugs in the US have more than 100 attempted patents per drug. Specifically, the report revealed that Humira® by AbbVie (used in the treatment of Crohn’s disease and the US’s highest grossing drug) has been issued 130 patents. The drug costs USD 44,000 annually and generated more than USD 19.2 billion for the company in 2019 alone. The Report also notes that the first patent filed for Herceptin® – used in the treatment for certain breast and stomach cancers – was in 1985 but currently has pending patent applications that could extend its market monopoly for 48 more years. Meanwhile, Celgene has over 105 patents for its oral cancer drug Revlimid® (used in the treatment of multiple myeloma) extending its monopoly until the end of 2036 – a patent lifespan of 40 years. In addition to excessive patenting and pricing, we have also come to understand the power of data in this context.

Health inequity and inequalities in vaccine access are not unfortunate outcomes of the global IP regime; they are part of its central architecture. The system is functioning exactly as it is set up to do. 

Second, regulatory agencies worldwide require drugs to undergo safety and efficacy testing to ensure they are harmless before approval. These tests, known as clinical trials, involve human subjects and are costly because they can run up to three separate phases. The data collected during these clinical trials are the proprietary materials of the company conducting the tests. Because it is expensive and time-consuming, generic drug companies usually rely on the safety and efficacy data of brand name companies to seek regulatory approval as long as they can prove their generic version is chemically and biologically equivalent to the original. Relying on the test data of brand name companies reduces the production cost for generic medicines and allows for quicker market entry. However, recent years have seen a promotion of time-limited, legally mandated protection against the non-proprietary use of such data by generic companies. This is known as data exclusivity. Put differently, data exclusivity is a period when a generic company cannot use the clinical trial data of an innovator pharmaceutical company to receive regulatory approval for a generic medicine. In so doing, data exclusivity provides a layer of protection in addition to patent protection to further delay market entry of generic medicines. 

Data exclusivity periods vary depending on the jurisdiction. For example, it is twelve years in US and ten years in the EU. While the TRIPS Agreement does not create property rights over registration data, the US and the EU have continued to champion and export data exclusivity through free trade agreements, particularly for biologics. For example, the US Affordable Health Care for America Act in 2009 extended a 12-year exclusivity period for biologics. This US interpretation for registration data was also included in the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), which sought a 10-year data exclusivity for new biologics. However, after intense negotiations, the data exclusivity protection was reduced to 5 years for new pharmaceuticals. In this instance, we see a crystallising of Euro-American ideas of property and a willingness to promote those property interests through the law, both domestic and international. In fact, certain scholars assert that this pursuit of higher TRIPS standards is driven, in part, by the US desire to achieve levels of protection it anticipated from the TRIPS Agreement but failed to secure. Given the influence of the industry and its representative group, PhRMA, in seeking stronger protection on a global scale, it is not surprising that the US’s post-TRIPS policies continue to rachet up standards in ways that undermine access to affordable medicines, and perpetuate social hierarchy and subordination. 

Third, patent practices in recent decades have seen pharmaceutical companies engaging in trivial and cosmetic tweaking of a drug whilst still reaping the benefit of 20 years of patent protection. This tweaking sometimes involves making minor changes to patented drugs, such as changes in mode of administration, new dosages, extended release, or change in color of the drug. These changes normally do not offer any significant therapeutic advantage even though pharmaceutical companies argue they provide improved health outcomes to patients. These additional patents on small changes to existing drugs, known as evergreening or patent thickets,  block the early entry of competitive, generic medicines that drive medicine prices down. For example, while not mandated by TRIPS, many US led TRIPS-plus free trade agreements have expanded the scope for evergreening. These include the US-Jordan FTA (2000), US-Australia FTA (2004) as well as the US-Korea FTA (2007), which allow for the patenting of new forms, uses, or methods of using existing products. 

The development discourse often touted by developed nations to help countries in the Global South ‘catch up’ is empty when the essential medicines needed to stay alive are deliberately denied and weaponised.

The cancer drug Gleevec®, owned by Novartis, is another example of how pharmaceutical companies often secure patents on new, more convenient versions with marginal therapeutic benefit to patients whilst blocking the entry of generic medicines. In 2013, Novartis’ patent application for Gleevec®– the β crystalline form of the salt imatinib mesylate – was rejected by the Indian Supreme Court because it lacked novelty. However, the company has secured patents for this product in other jurisdictions such as the US and has maintained a high price of Gleevec there. But in India the price of Gleevec® was reduced from approximately USD 2,200 to USD 88 for one month’s treatment in the generic drugs market as a result of the 2013 Indian Supreme Court judgement. Novartis is not the only culprit. The depression drug Effexor® by Pfizer was granted an evergreen patent when the company introduced an extended-release version, Efexor-XR®, even though there was no additional benefit to patients. Eventually, the patent was declared invalid, but by then it had already cost an estimated USD 209 million to Australian taxpayers and kept generic competition off the market for two and a half years. In another instance, Pfizer went on to secure an additional patent for the Pristiq®, which contained identical chemical compound as Efexor-XR®,and again with no added therapeutic benefit.

These evergreening practices, of course, have material effects. Apart from delaying the entry of generic versions, they give brand-name pharmaceutical companies free reign in the market, which allows them to set the market price. Recent years have seen monopoly prices rise exorbitantly causing significant financial strain to patients, domestic healthcare services and even insurance companies in developed countries. A notorious example is Martin Shkreli, who in 2015 bought the rights to an anti-malarial drug, then raised the price by 5,000 per cent  from a cost of USD 13.50 to USD 750. Similarly, a white paper by I-MAK shows how excessive patenting and related strategies are driving families to overspend on lifesaving medicines. Celgene, the makers of Revlimid® raised the price of the drug by more than 50 per cent since 2012 to over USD 125,000 per year of treatment. Using the example of Solvadi® by Gilead, which costs USD 84,000 per treatment, Feldman notes the drug would cost the US Department of Defense more than USD 12 billion to treat all hepatitis-infected patients in US Veterans Affairs. But the US is not alone. In Europe, expensive drugs have prompted a growing backlash against pharmaceutical corporations. Reacting to these price hikes, Dutch pharmacies are bypassing these exorbitant prices by preparing medicines in-house for individual patients. The broken IP system ranging from an extraordinarily low standard for granting patents to permissions of patent thickets around a single molecule has not only severely distorted the system of innovation, but they have also skewed access to life-saving drugs. As a result, prices for new and existing medicines are constantly rising, making essential medicines inaccessible for millions of people around the world.

COVID-19, Intellectual Property and Vaccine Imperialism

This brings us to the present and how this dysfunction continues to be normalised in the current pandemic. Moderna, for example, has filed over 100 patents for the mRNA technology used in its vaccine, despite receiving funds from the US government with its IP partly owned by the US National Institutes of Health. Pfizer/BioNTech have also filed multiple patents on not only their COVID-19 vaccine product, but also on the manufacturing process, method of use and related technologies even though BioNtech was given $450 million by the German government to speed up vaccine work and expand production capacity in Germany. It has become increasingly plain that IP makes private rights out of public funds while benefitting particular corporate interests. In fact, reports show the US government  under Operation Warp Speed led by the US Department of Health also funded other vaccines developed in 2020 by several pharmaceutical corporations including Johnson and Johnson, Regeneron, Novavax, Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca, and others. In spite of this boost from public funds, and with many governments wholly taking on the risks for potential vaccine side effects, drug manufacturers fully own the patents and related IP rights and so can decide how and where the vaccines get manufactured and how much they cost. As a result, taxpayers are paying twice for the same shot: first for its development, then again for the finished product. Meanwhile, a New York Times report has revealed that in some of the agreements between pharmaceutical companies and states, governments are prohibited from donating or reselling doses. This prohibition helps explain the price disparity in vaccine purchases among countries where poor countries are paying more. For example, Uganda is paying USD 8.50 per dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine while the EU is paying only USD 3.50 per dose. By prioritizing monopoly rights of a few western corporations, IP dysfunction not only continues to reproduce old inequities and inequality in health access, but helps frame our understanding about the creation and management of knowledge. And perhaps we begin to see the refusal of drug makers to share knowledge needed to boost global vaccine supply for what it truly is: an extension in capitalist bifurcation of who is imagined as a legitimate intellectual property owner and who is envisioned as a threat to the (intellectual) propertied order. 

Supporters and opponents of a TRIPS waiver for the COVID-19 vaccines (February 2021)

Despite calls to make COVID-19 vaccines and related technologies a global public good, western pharmaceutical companies have declined to loosen or temporarily suspend IP protections and transfer technology to generic manufacturers. Such transfer would enable the scale-up of production and supply of lifesaving COVID-19 medical tools across the world. Furthermore, these countries are also blocking the TRIPS waiver proposal put forward by South Africa and India at the WTO despite being supported by 57 mostly developing countries. The waiver proposal seeks to temporarily postpone certain provisions of the TRIPS Agreement for treating, containing and preventing the coronavirus, but only until widespread vaccination and immunity are achieved. This means that countries will not be required to provide any form of IP protection on all COVID-19 related therapeutics, diagnostics and other technologies for the duration of the pandemic. It is important to reiterate the waiver proposal is time-limited and is different from TRIPS flexibilities, which are safeguards within the Agreement to mitigate the negative impact of patents such as high price of patented medicines. These safeguards include compulsory licenses and parallel importation. However, because of the onerous process of initiating these flexibilities as well as the threat of possible trade penalties by the US through the United States Trade Representative (USTR) “Special 301” Report targeting countries even in the absence of illegality, many developing countries are reluctant to invoke TRIPS flexibilities for public health purposes. For example, in the past, countries such as Colombia, India, Thailand and recently Malaysia have all featured in the Special 301 Report for using compulsory licenses to increase access to cancer medications. It is these challenges that the TRIPS waiver seeks to alleviate and, if approved, would also provide countries the space, without fear of retaliation from developed countries, to collaborate with competent developers in the R&D, manufacturing, scaling-up, and supply of COVID-19 tools. However, because this waiver is being opposed by a group of developed countries, we are grappling with the problem of artificially-created vaccine scarcity. The effect of this scarcity will further prolong and deepen the financial impact of this pandemic currently estimated to cost USD 9.2 trillion, half of which will be borne by advanced economies. Thus, in opposing the TRIPS waiver with the hopes of reaping huge financial rewards, developed countries are worsening pandemic woes in the long term. 

Perhaps it is time to reorient our sight and call the ongoing practices of buying up global supply of vaccine what it truly is – vaccine imperialism.

Another kind of scarcity caused by vaccine nationalism has also reduced equitable access. Vaccine nationalism is a phenomenon where rich countries buy up global supply of vaccines through advance purchase agreements (APA) with pharmaceutical companies for their own populations at the expense of other countries. But perhaps it is time to reorient our sight and call the ongoing practices of buying up global supply of vaccine what it truly is – vaccine imperialism. If we take seriously the argument put forward by Antony Anghie on the colonial origins of international law, particularly how these origins create a set of structures that continually repeat themselves at various stages, we will begin to see COVID-19 vaccine accumulation not only as political, but also as imperial continuities manifesting in the present. Take, for instance, the report released by the Duke Global Health Innovation Center that shows that high-income countries have already purchased nearly 3.8 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses. Specifically, the United States has secured 400 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, and has APAs for more than 1 billion doses from four other companies yet to secure US regulatory approval. The European Union has similarly negotiated nearly 2.3 billion doses under contract and is negotiating for about 300 million more. With these purchases, these countries will be able to vaccinate their populations twice over, while many developing states, especially in Africa, are left behind. In hoarding vaccines whilst protecting the IP interests of their pharmaceutical multinational corporations, the afterlife of imperialism is playing out in this pandemic.

Moreover, these bilateral deals are hampering initiatives such as the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access Facility (COVAX) – a pooled procurement mechanism for COVID-19 vaccine – aimed at equitable and science-led global vaccine distribution. By engaging in bilateral deals, wealthy countries impede the possibility of effective mass-inoculation campaigns. While the usefulness of the COVAX initiative cannot be denied, it is not enough. It will cover only the most vulnerable  20 per cent of a  country’s population, it is severely underfunded and there are lingering questions regarding the contractual obligations of pharmaceutical companies involved in the initiative. For instance, it is not clear whether the COVAX contract includes IP-related clauses such as sharing of technological know-how. Still, even with all its faults, without a global ramping-up of production, distribution and vaccination campaigns via COVAX, the world will not be able to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and its growing variants. Health inequity and inequalities in vaccine access are not unfortunate outcomes of the global IP regime; they are part of its central architecture. The system is functioning exactly as it is set up to do.   

These events – the corporate capture of the global pharmaceutical IP regime, state complicity and vaccine imperialism – are not new. Recall Article 7 of TRIPS, which states that the objective of the Agreement is the ‘protection and enforcement of intellectual property rights [to] contribute to the promotion of technological innovation and to the transfer and dissemination of technology’. In similar vein, Article 66(2) of TRIPS further calls on developed countries to ‘provide incentives to enterprises and institutions within their territories to promote and encourage technology transfer to least-developed country’. While the language of ‘transfer of technology’ might seem beneficial or benign, in actuality it is not. As I discussed in my book, and as Carmen Gonzalez has also shown, when development objectives are incorporated into international legal instruments and institutions, they become embedded in structures that may constrain their transformative potential and reproduce North-South power imbalances. This is because these development objectives are circumscribed by capitalist imperialist structures, adapted to justify colonial practices and mobilized through racial differences. These structures are the essence of international law and its institutions even in the twenty-first century. They continue to animate broader socio-economic engagement with the global economy even in the present as well as in the legal and regulatory codes that support them. Thus, it is not surprising that even in current global health crisis, calls for this same transfer of technology in the form of a TRIPS waiver to scale up global vaccine production is being thwarted by the hegemony of developed states inevitably influenced by their respective pharmaceutical companies. The ‘emancipatory potential’ of TRIPS cannot be achieved if it was not created to be emancipatory in the first place. It also makes obvious the ways international IP law is not only unsuited to promote structural reform to enable the self-sufficiency and self-determination of the countries in the global south, but also produces asymmetries that perpetuate inequalities. 

Concluding Remarks

What this pandemic makes clear is that the development discourse often touted by developed nations to help countries in the Global South ‘catch up’ is empty when the essential medicines needed to stay alive are deliberately denied and weaponised. Like the free-market reforms designed to produce ‘development’, IP deployed to incentivise innovation is yet another tool in the service of private profits. As this pandemic has shown, the reality of contemporary capitalism – including the IP regime that underpins it – is competition among corporate giants driven by profit and not by human need. The needs of the poor weigh much less than the profits of big business and their home states. However, it is not all doom and gloom. Countries such as India, China and Russia have stepped up in the distribution of vaccines or what many call ‘vaccine diplomacy.’ Further, Cuba’s vaccine candidate Soberana 02, which is currently in final clinical trial stages and does not require extra refrigeration, promises to be a suitable option for many countries in the global South with infrastructural and logistical challenges. Importantly, Cuba’s history of medical diplomacy in other global South countries raises hope that the country will be willing to share the know-how with other manufactures in various non-western countries, which could help address artificial supply problems and control over distribution. In sum, this pandemic provides an opportune moment to overhaul this dysfunctional global IP system. We need not wait for the next crisis to learn the lessons from this crisis.