As the coronavirus pandemic continues to take lives around the world, the race has begun to make the right drugs to fight it. This includes developing a vaccine to prevent human disease and testing packaging and drugs to treat people with COVID-19.

Of course, most pharmaceutical companies are not involved in these activities. The development of new drugs requires huge investments. Pharmaceutical companies seek and maintain patents to protect these investments by giving them a monopoly on the drugs they develop. During this time, they may charge high prices for these drugs.

Of course, in times of global crisis, these companies are increasingly required to relinquish all property rights to facilitate the spread of drugs and devices useful in the fight against COVID. -19. Some companies have taken the initiative themselves, such as the American company AbbVie. In March 2020, he announced that he would cease patenting Kaletra, an HIV drug that is currently being tested for COVID-19 treatment around the world.

However, others continue to fight for exclusivity. For example, the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China recently filed a national patent for the use of remdesivir, an investigational antiviral drug used to treat COVID-19 and first developed by the US company Gilead.

Gilead was also caught on fire when he appealed to US regulators to obtain “orphan status” for remdesivir. Under U.S. law, pharmaceutical companies that develop drugs for diseases affecting fewer than 200,000 people have a seven-year market exclusivity. But after a public response, Gilead released a memo saying he would withdraw his orphans request.

Wuhan Institute and Gilead operate legally. But is their decision to use intellectual property rights to prevent others from accessing their medicines ethically responsible?

Reduce drug prices

If pharmaceutical companies do not waive their exclusive legal rights, the law provides mechanisms to balance those rights with the public interest. One of the instruments is the compulsory license of patents. This allows companies that do not own the intellectual property rights to drugs to make and sell copies legally in an emergency. Under major international trade agreements, governments may grant compulsory licenses for the use of a particular drug at that country’s national borders under certain conditions.

These authorizations have proven effective in reducing drug prices in the past. For example, the Indian generics manufacturer Natco obtained such a license for the anti-cancer drug Sorafenib in 2012 after the national patent office ruled that Sorafenib’s patent owner Bayer AG had failed. not enough has been done to make the drug available to Indian citizens. As a result, the local pharmaceutical company Cipla produced a version of Sorafenib that was 75% cheaper.

It is likely that the use of compulsory licenses to combat experimental COVID-19 treatments will soon increase exponentially, especially if pharmaceutical companies are reluctant to share their data. For example, Israel recently granted a compulsory license to AbbVie Kaletra – this prompted Abbwe to waive patent rights for the drug worldwide. Since then, Israel has implemented plans to import a generic version of Kaletra produced by the Indian company Hetero.

The Chilean Parliament and the National Assembly of Ecuador also passed resolutions that would pave the way for a compulsory license to fight the corona-virus epidemic. Meanwhile, the German government has launched plans to reduce patent rights linked to the pandemic. Canada is taking similar steps.

In the face of an unprecedented global health threat such as the coronavirus pandemic, research collaboration has never been more needed to find better tests and treatments. This, in turn, could force companies to relinquish their monopoly on new therapies and technologies.

We have seen similar conflicts in the past. In 1998, a group of pharmaceutical companies took legal action against the South African government to prevent it from passing laws that would make drugs used in various drugs, especially for HIV and AIDS, more affordable. The biggest objection was that local law restricts patent protection. The case received widespread criticism around the world and made the public aware of the (sometimes) negative impact of patent laws on public health. Ultimately, the companies withdrew from the trial.

Today’s moment of the crisis calls into question once again the moral foundations of intellectual property law. These rights are necessary to support the development of essential medicines, but they are not far from perfect. Patent protection must be managed in an ethical manner, which can sometimes result in companies losing a right to the wider public interest.