Mark Jolink: "With a fair revenue model for pharmaceutical companies, the government can encourage the development of affordable vaccines that are available to all. And if necessary, the minister can use a compulsory licence." world is eagerly awaiting a vaccine against the virus that causes Covid-19 and is willing to invest a great deal of money in this. But it does not bear thinking about that once a vaccine does become available, the party that holds the exclusive patent rights is initially only going to sell it to a limited group of people. Just recently there was a rumour that President Trump (with his 'America first' slogan) tried to buy the exclusive rights from two German researchers. This was subsequently denied.
With the coronary pandemic and the development of a vaccine, we desperately need the pharmaceutical industry. The outbreak provides an excellent opportunity to look at what an acceptable revenue model for pharmaceutical companies could look like. A model that does justice to the world's need for innovation and to an industry that lives on innovation.
What is needed for this is openness about investments and production costs. If necessary, investments may include a factor for the co-financing of a number of similar vaccine development processes which are less successful. We, as society, can then determine a reasonable percentage of profit for the sale of a working vaccine. The government can take the lead in this to ensure that a supported and substantiated price is determined.
Work around the clock
These are complex and risky development processes. One complicating factor is that success has many (international) fathers and several development centres around the world are working around the clock to achieve this highly desired result.
Right now, about thirty-five pharmaceutical companies and academic institutions are doing their utmost to develop a vaccine against Covid-19 as quickly as possible.
What if an opportunistic party decides to go for the big money instead of the common good?
A compulsory licence could be the solution. In many countries, the patent law would not even need to be changed for this, as it often already includes such a compulsory licence option, whereby the relevant minister even has the power to determine a reasonable licence fee. According to Article 57, if it is in the interest of the common good, it is possible in the Netherlands for the minister to force pharmacists to grant a licence, so that a Covid-19 vaccine becomes available to all at a reasonable price.
International collaboration is essential here to ensure that countries are all on the same page. What is interesting about the corona case is that the social need for a vaccine is obvious. In other words, the corona pandemic qualifies for a request for a compulsory licence and thus also for an investigation into what would be a reasonable price for the vaccine. According to legal provisions, a ministerial investigation must be initiated to determine what reasonable conditions the patent holder may impose, in other words, what would be a reasonable price for the vaccine.
So this is an interesting test case. The insights we gain can also be applied to other cases within the pharmaceutical industry, and thus help prevent overpricing, or just the appearance thereof. Moreover, it will give the life science industry, in the Netherlands as well as in other countries, a good incentive to continue to innovate. Experts in this industry indicate that China now dominates the research and production of a vaccine, whereas this used to be an important domain for the Netherlands.
This article was also published in Trouw on 24 March 2020.