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WHO launches COVID-19 patent pool into headwinds

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The World Health Organization launched its COVID-19 patent pool Friday facing significant obstacles that include a lack of support from China, the U.K. and the U.S., as well as pushback from leading pharma executives who see the initiative as dangerous and unnecessary.

The WHO’s COVID-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP), which has the support of 30 countries and several international partners and institutions, seeks to pool data, knowledge and IP for COVID-19 countermeasures to be shared equitably around the globe (see “World Leaders Call for Pooling Resources”).

The absence of the three countries, which have produced the most advanced SARS-CoV-2 vaccines and therapies, is another sign of their reticence to commit to global IP-sharing initiatives to combat the pandemic.

The launch came a day after top executives from AstraZeneca plc (LSE:AZN; NYSE:AZN), GlaxoSmithKline plc (LSE:GSK; NYSE:GSK), Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ) and Pfizer Inc. (NYSE:PFE) rejected the need for such a pool.

“At this point in time it is nonsense,” said Pfizer Chairman and CEO Albert Bourla. “To have a discussion that -- keep in mind if you discover it -- ‘we are going to take your IP,’ I think is dangerous.”

IP is fundamental to the biopharma industry, GSK CEO Emma Walmsley said, adding that “there isn’t enormous evidence that IP is a barrier to access” to vaccines, she said (see “Pharma Leaders Warn Vaccine Manufacturing Doesn’t Turn on a Dime”).

The WHO’s voluntary pool seeks to license any potential treatment, diagnostic, vaccine or other health technology to the UN-backed Medicines Patent Pool (MPP).

Gilead Sciences Inc. (NASDAQ:GILD) has said it is working with MPP to license and distribute remdesivir in developing countries. In April, the MPP announced that the public health organization’s board has temporarily expanded its mandate to include any health technology that could contribute to the global response to COVID-19 and where licensing could facilitate innovation and access (see “Gilead Secures Global Access to Remdesivir”).

The program also seeks to collect four other types of information: gene sequences; clinical trial results; funding agreements with pharmaceutical companies; and technology transfers to increase local manufacturing and supply capacity.

While the U.K. has endorsed the WHO’s sister initiative, the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, the U.S. and China have not. The initiative aims to foster international collaboration on COVID-19 medical countermeasures and ensure global equitable access (see “World Leaders Commit to Collaborate on Defeating COVID-19”).

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