The U.S. government has agreed to put licenses for 11 medical technologies developed at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) into a so-called patent pool, a move that 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 a deal 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 sharing intellectual property to benefit the public.
The scheme is part of a broader push to make medicines developed in rich countries more broadly accessible that Love helped spark 2 decades ago by campaigning 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 patent agreements for several anti-HIV drugs and recently added two treatments for COVID-19, Pfizer’s Paxlovid and Merck & Co.’s molnupiravir. The new agreement also covers inventions used by companies that make existing COVID-19 vaccines, such as a modification that stabilizes 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 forges deals with drugmakers that allow companies in the least developed countries to pay the lowest royalty fees—and some pay nothing at all. In many cases, however, the licenses in the NIH portfolio only remove one hurdle to making a vaccine or another product, which often require licensing agreements with several different patent holders.
Few developing countries manufacture vaccines—Pfizer and Moderna only recently began to help African countries make their COVID-19 vaccines—and the agreement could lead to more production plants in poorer regions of the world, says Ellen ’t Hoen, who founded MPP. “You can’t have sustainable vaccine manufacturing capacity if you’re 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, on efforts underway to pressure companies and institutions to more quickly and broadly share intellectual property that is key to combating pressing diseases. It could signal to companies that have been reluctant to share patents that “you should follow suit,” says ’t Hoen, who now directs Medicines Law & Policy, a nonprofit. “If companies now continue to give the COVID-19 Technology Access Pool the cold shoulder, I think the push on changing 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 to share critical medicines more quickly in the future. But the issue is contentious, and the various parties have yet to reach a consensus on how to proceed.