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- How countries sold out
Controversies have continued to trail the COVID-19 pandemic and the rush with which most governments accepted vaccines produced by big pharmaceutical companies without hesitation despite not undergoing some key procedures, have made many people to be hesitant and skeptical about the real motive of world leaders.
For instance, governments have poured billions of dollars into helping drug companies develop vaccines and are spending billions more to buy doses. But the details of those deals largely remain secret, with governments and public health organizations acquiescing to drug company demands for secrecy.
The drug companies Pfizer and AstraZeneca recently announced that they would miss their European delivery targets, causing widespread concern as dangerous virus variants spread. But the terms of their contracts remain closely guarded secrets, making it difficult to question company or government officials about either blame or recourse.
Available documents, however, suggest that drug companies demanded and received flexible delivery schedules, patent protection and immunity from liability if anything goes wrong.
Despite the secrecy, government and regulatory documents, public statements, interviews and the occasional slip-up have revealed some key details about the vaccine deals.
“Vaccine development is a risky venture. Companies rarely invest in manufacturing until they’re sure their vaccines are effective and can win government approval. That’s part of why it typically takes so long to develop and roll them out, says a medical expert, Prof. Kim Ashley.
According to the expert, to speed up that process, governments — primarily the United States and Europe — and non-profit groups like the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, or CEPI, absorbed some or all of that risk.
The United States, for example, committed up to $1.6 billion to help the Maryland-based company Novavax develop its coronavirus vaccine, according to regulatory filings. CEPI kicked in up to about $400 million in grants and no-interest loans.
Despite the tremendous taxpayer investments, typically the drug companies fully own the patents. That means that companies can decide how and where the vaccines get manufactured and how much they cost. As the CureVac contract explains it, the company “shall be entitled to exclusively exploit any such” property rights.
A coalition of countries, led by India and South Africa, have petitioned the World Trade Organization to waive intellectual property rights so generic drug makers can begin producing the vaccines.
The World Health Organization has endorsed the idea, but it is all but doomed by opposition from the United States and Europe, whose drug makers say patents, and the profits that flow from them, are the lifeblood of innovation.
“Governments are creating artificial scarcity,” said Zain Rizvi of the watchdog group Public Citizen. “When the public funds knowledge that is required to end a pandemic, it shouldn’t be kept a secret.”
READ ALSO: NFL coach leaves job, refuses COVID-19 jab
One of the key terms of the vaccine contracts — the price per dose — is frequently redacted in the public versions of government contracts. The companies consider this a trade secret. Some drug companies have included clauses in their supply contracts that allow them to suspend deliveries if countries reveal the price.
While governments accepted that provision, leaks and some official reports show some of the disparities. The European Commission paid $2.19 for every dose of the vaccine developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca, while South Africa paid more than twice as much, $5.25, according to media reports.
While drug companies did not respond to requests to view their unredacted contracts or explain why secrecy was necessary, a spokeswoman for Moderna pointed only to a regulatory document that said the contract “contains terms and conditions that are customary.”
That is why it caused such a stir last month when a Belgian official mistakenly revealed a price list, which showed that United States taxpayers were paying $19.50 per dose for the Pfizer vaccine, while Europeans paid $14.70.
Dag Inge Ulstein, Norway’s minister of international development, said countries and international organizations must do more to make contracts public. He also called on countries to share vaccine technology and said rich governments should donate vaccines to poor countries early — even while still vaccinating their own citizens, as Norway plans to do.
“There must be transparency related to the agreements on procurements,” he said in an interview. To that end, he shared with The New York Times his country’s purchase agreement with Covax. That organization has refused to make public its deals — either with the drug makers or with the countries it is selling to.
In the United States, drug companies are shielded from nearly all liability if their vaccines don’t work or cause serious side effects. The government covered Covid-19 drug makers under the PREP Act, a 2005 law intended to speed up access to medicine during health emergencies.
That means that people cannot sue the companies, even in cases of negligence or recklessness. The only exceptions are cases of proven, “willful misconduct.”
Drug companies are seeking similar liability waivers in negotiations with other countries. European negotiators have balked at such requests. Covax also insists that countries accept all liability as part of its contracts
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