Trade deal will frustrate quest for COVID-19 vaccine

Kristina Acri   

Economy General Government Manufacturing COVID-19 Economy government pharmaceutical trade deal vaccine

Industry’s rapid response is a reminder to support and protect biopharmaceutical innovation.

If only we had heeded Bill Gates back in 2018.

In an article that year, the Microsoft co-founder noted that the “global community eradicated smallpox, a disease that killed an estimated 300 million people in the 20th century alone. We’re on the verge of eradicating polio, a disease that 30 years ago was endemic in 125 countries and that paralyzed or killed 350,000 children per year. And today, nearly 21 million people are receiving lifesaving HIV treatment, thanks primarily to the support of the world community. We need a clear road map for a comprehensive pandemic preparedness and response system, because lives, in numbers too great to comprehend, depend on it.”

At this moment, we see the value of preparedness and the importance of innovation. And that we are woefully unprepared.

As described by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the “COVID-19 crisis has laid bare stark weaknesses in our health care systems, from the number of intensive-care beds to the size of the workforce, the inability to provide enough masks and to deploy testing in some countries, and deficiencies in the research for and supply of drugs and vaccines.”


The bad news can seem overwhelming but there are glimpses of hope.

Vir Biotechnology, a biotech company headquartered in San Francisco, recently announced it has mapped out “multiple antibodies” that can “neutralize” SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing COVID-19. Moreover, the company will kick-start a clinical test as early as this summer.

Moderna, an biotech company in Massachusetts, in collaboration with the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has initiated the first human trial of a COVID-19 vaccine, with testing in healthy volunteers. While widespread use of the Moderna vaccine is likely a year away, the company may provide the vaccine to a few health-care workers as early as this fall.

And BioNTech and Pfizer are jointly developing a COVID-19 vaccine, with clinical testing in humans likely by the end of April.

This rapid response has not unfolded by accident.

The biopharmaceutical industry is uniquely prepared to combat COVID-19, thanks to decades of investing in technology, research and treatments – investments incentivized by the intellectual property rights protections afforded the industry.

The current crisis, and the industry’s rapid response, remind us that we must continue to support and protect biopharmaceutical innovation.

Unfortunately, we seem to be watering down such protections.

In December 2019, the United States, Mexico and Canada signed the new trade agreement (USMCA) in Mexico City. While the agreement represents progress for international trade, it weakened protections for the biopharma industry, since the final version removed provisions that would have extended the exclusivity (essentially, the period when brand-name drugs are protected from generic drug competition) of biologic drugs in Canada and Mexico.

Of course, biologic medicines, which are produced from (or contain elements of) living organisms, are expensive. They represent a significant portion of spending on physician-administered drugs.

Ironically, this is precisely why intellectual property protections are essential. We need these regulations to incentivize more innovation and create competing products for these drugs. It’s only through additional innovation we will see prices fall, while expanding the treatment choices of patients in Canada and beyond.

And it’s only by protecting biologic exclusivity that we will see additional innovation – innovations that give us hope in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Medical innovation and biopharmaceutical progress will suffer as a result of the USMCA. Canadian policy-makers should rethink the exclusivity offered to biologics and protect an industry that brings us the treatments, cures and life-saving vaccines of tomorrow.

Kristina Acri is a senior fellow at the Fraser Institute and an associate professor of economics at Colorado College.

© Troy Media 2020



Stories continue below