Access to COVID-19 treatments and the Medicines Patent Pool: Here's Why it Matters and How IP Makes it Possible

November 17, 2021

Some great news broke recently for the worldwide treatment of COVID-19: The Medicines Patent Pool, a UN-backed non-profit of which WIPO is a board member, agreed to work with Pfizer and Merck Sharpe and Dohme (MSD), both of which are WIPO Re:Search member companies, for the licensing of anti-viral pills (MSD’s molnupiravir and Pfizer’s PF-07321332), in nearly 100 low and middle-income countries.

(PHOTO: Niseri N)

Why is this important? Treating COVID-19 at the early stages of the disease is key because the cure rate in early infections is higher than in advanced infections. To date, only two treatments for early stages of COVID-19 infection have shown promising results: MSD’s molnupiravir and Pfizer’s PF-07321332. These agreements will enable mass production and low-cost distribution of these COVID-19 treatments for half of the world population, with MSD and Pfizer foregoing royalties while COVID-19 remains under its current pandemic-related classification by the World Health Organization. Sales will continue under normal market conditions elsewhere.

This will mean countless human lives saved in countries with the greatest need for extra support in moving beyond the pandemic.

"These deals are very welcome developments and represent a balanced model for promoting the spread of innovative anti-COVID medical technology across the globe," said WIPO Director General Daren Tang. "I encourage players across the world - those creating these important health technologies, those seeking them and everyone in between - to quickly explore similar arrangements. WIPO stands ready to continue its work to facilitate the sharing of IP, technology and the know-how needed to make it all work."

What is the role of intellectual property in all of this? IP ownership for an eventual product encourages enterprises to commit to the research and development and other outlays needed to develop health technologies. In many cases, development and testing may take years before a product comes to market.

The COVID-19 pandemic turbocharged this process, which in some cases included massive public investments alongside those made by the pharmaceutical industry and others. MSD’s repurposing of molnupiravir and Pfizer’s discovery of PF-07321332 were made possible by the incentives provided by the IP system.

Now, with a growing range of COVID-19 vaccines and other products coming online, the international community is targeting universal access. And this is where the Medicines Patent Pool and other groups come in to help the IP-owning enterprises link up with the local partners who can widen production and distribution of medical technologies. The Medicines Patent Pool is an initiative that links up the interested parties to promote the voluntary licensing practices of pharmaceutical companies.

Licensing is the most frequently used tool for transferring IP. In a license agreement, the owner of IP or entity that controls the use, allows third parties to develop, manufacture and/or distribute the invention. In other words, the licensor grants authorization to a company that has manufacturing capacity and distribution channels to bring the invention to potential users. Under the standard licensing model, the licensor receives a royalty fee under agreed financial terms of the agreement.

The license agreements for molnupiravir and PF-07321332 are milestones in the fight against the pandemic and a key example of how intellectual property is a critical ingredient to solve pressing problems as the bridge allowing diverse parties to work together with clarity. In situations where there is urgent need to produce an invention at large scale, such as when there is a public health emergency, the standard licensing model often requires additional features to take into account any market failures. These market failures most often include the limited capacity to manufacture the invention in massive quantities and the risk of concentrating distribution of the invention only in those places where users are able to pay a premium.

Technology transfer agreements offer a solution to this problem. Intellectual property is an effective instrument for technology transfer, which is a collaborative process that allows scientific findings, knowledge and intellectual property to flow from creators, such as research institutions and universities, or business labs, to public and private users, with the goal to transform inventions and scientific outcomes into new innovative products that benefit society. At its most basic, the IP ownership allows for this transfer.

Technology transfer also fosters the multiplication of manufacturing plants and therefore can dramatically increase production of a much-needed invention, including medicines.

WIPO welcomes that the Medicines Patent Pool and MSD have agreed to submit any IP disputes that may arise from their license agreement to mediation under the WIPO Mediation Rules.  As one of the elements of WIPO’s Covid-19 response package, WIPO has launched a new mediation service to facilitate contract negotiation and dispute resolution in life sciences.