Free trade and strong IP held back Ebola vaccine development says NGO

By Gareth Macdonald

- Last updated on GMT

Biohazard four lab needed to work with Ebola virus
Biohazard four lab needed to work with Ebola virus

Related tags Intellectual property Vaccine

The lack of an Ebola vaccine decades after the virus was discovered is due in part to IP protections in trade deals like TTIP that discourage innovation according to NGO, Health Action International (HAI).

The seventh round of US and European free trade talks, called Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP)​ ended earlier this month just as the number of confirmed cases of Ebola in West Africa passed the 7,400 mark.

The talks​, which EU and US officials said would remove trade barriers, attracted criticism from Oxfam and HAI, which said TTIP pushes Europe to embrace patent policies​ that will keep drug costs high and stifle innovation, citing the lack of an Ebola vaccine as evidence.

HAI spokeswoman Bobbi Klettke told “The lack of an Ebola vaccine or treatment is an example of a stagnant and redundant innovation system, which is being reinforced through intellectual property measures in trade agreements.

Pharmaceutical companies refrain from investing in neglected diseases, like Ebola, because a profitable western market does not yet exist. Ebola has been around since the 1970s, yet little R&D into it has occurred​.” 

The criticism echoes comments by WHO director Margaret Chan​, who said: “Because Ebola has been, historically, geographically confined to poor African nations…the R&D incentive is virtually non-existent. A profit-driven industry does not invest in products for markets that cannot pay.”

IP for profit

Drug industry groups on both sides of the Atlantic argue that strong intellectual property (IP) regulations like those called for in TTIP provide “key incentives for taking on the risks of researching and developing new medicines.

The suggestion is that pharmaceutical firms need the market exclusivity provided by strong IP to generate profits​ that they use to fund development of the next generation of pharmaceuticals.

HAI disagrees with this interpretation. Klettke said: “Increasing intellectual property protection does not lead to needs-driven innovation.

Our general recommendation, regardless of the disease, is to promote and facilitate new R&D models that encourage knowledge sharing, are responsive to public health needs, and deliver affordable treatment​.”

She also rejected the idea that profits feed into R&D, arguing that: “We have little sympathy for the argument that the industry needs profits to drive research when they spend more promoting their products, than they do on R&D. Even then, it is difficult to say how much basic R&D the industry actually contributes​.”

EFPIA did not respond to a request for comment ahead of publication. 

Ebola vaccines and drugs

Various Ebola medication and vaccine development efforts are ongoing with candidate products by Mapp Pharmaceuticals, Tekmira and Sarepta showing the most promise.

UK drug major GlaxoSmithKline is also working to produce 10,000​ doses of an experimental vaccine which, coincidently, may soon be the same number of new cases of Ebola occuring each week according to the latest WHO predictions​.

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