The US government has agreed to grant licenses for 11 medical technologies developed at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) into a so-called patent pool, which promises to make it easier for low- and middle-income countries to gain access to vaccines, drugs, and diagnostics for COVID-19. President Joe Biden made the announcement yesterday at the Global COVID-19 Summit.
The government cut to provide the federally funded inventions with the COVID-19 Technology Access Pool, organized by the World Health Organization (WHO). WHO then turns over the licenses to a nonprofit, the Medicines Patent Pool (MPP), which negotiates with manufacturers interested in using the technologies to make products that can be sold worldwide. “It’s a pretty big deal,” says James Love, who directs Knowledge Ecology International, a nonprofit that advocates for intellectual property sharing to the public’s benefit.
The scheme is part of a campaign for the availability of HIV drugs in poor countries. That Biden himself made the announcement yesterday is a “significant” show of support, Love says.
Created in 2010, MPP today has patented agreements for several anti-HIV drugs and recently added two treatments for COVID-19, Pfizer’s Paxlovid and Merck & Co.’s molnupiravir. COVID-19 vaccines, such as a modification that stabilizes the spike, the surface protein of SARS-CoV-2. Companies could also use the technologies to make entirely new products. Research tools for drugmakers and diagnostic assays are also part of the agreement.
MPP for drug dealers that allow companies to pay the lowest royalty fees — and some pay nothing at all. In many cases, however, the licenses are not limited to several other patent holders.
However, says Ellen ‘t Hoen, who founded MPP. “You can’t have a sustainable vaccine manufacturing capacity if you are only allowed to produce something when the world is on fire,” she says.
The agreement also could have a “symbolic and political” impact, ‘t Hoen says, is a key to combating pressing diseases. It says Hook, who now directs Medicines Law & Policy, is a nonprofit. “If companies now continue to give the COVID-19 Technology Access Pool the cold shoulder, I think the rules of the game will only become stronger.” Both the World Trade Organization and the WHO-led Pandemic Preparedness Treaty have ongoing discussions about increasing access to intellectual property. But the issue is contentious, and the various parties have yet to reach a consensus on how to proceed.