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Biden-backed Covid vaccine patent waiver will cause problems

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Sergeant Jennifer Callender (L) of the Illinois Air National Guard administers a vaccine for Pfizer Covid-19 to Virginia Persha on February 3, 2021 at a vaccination center at Triton College in River Grove, Ill.

Kamil Krzaczynski | AFP | Getty Images

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla warned on Friday that waiving patent protection for Covid vaccines – a proposal just endorsed by President Joe Biden – would spark a global race for raw materials that would allow the safe and efficient manufacture of Covid- Shots at risk.

The Biden government said Wednesday it supports the limited intellectual property rule waiver in the service of expanding vaccine distribution to the lower-income countries currently hit by the pandemic.

But Bourla, whose company makes one of three vaccines approved for use in the United States, “categorically” believes the waiver will “cause more problems.”

“Right now, the infrastructure is not the bottleneck for us to produce faster,” wrote Bourla in a letter from a dear colleague published on LinkedIn. “The limitation is the lack of highly specialized raw materials needed to make our vaccine.”

Pfizer’s vaccine requires 280 different materials and components, sourced from 19 countries around the world, Bourla said. He claimed that companies with much less experience than Pfizer would compete for the same ingredients in making vaccines without patent protection.

“Currently, virtually every gram of the raw material produced is immediately delivered to our manufacturing facilities and is instantly and reliably switched to vaccines that are immediately shipped around the world,” wrote Bourla.

He predicted that the proposed waiver “threatens to disrupt the flow of raw materials”.

Albert Bourla, CEO of Pfizer, speaks after attending a press conference to monitor the production of the Pfizer-BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine at the factory of the US pharmaceutical company Pfizer in Puurs, Belgium, on April 23, 2021.

John Thys | Pool | Reuters

“It will create a mess for the critical inputs we need to make a safe and effective vaccine,” wrote Bourla.

“Companies with little or no vaccine manufacturing experience are likely hunting the very raw materials we need to scale our production, putting everyone’s safety at risk,” the CEO wrote.

The White House referred CNBC’s reach to Bourla’s post to the US sales representative’s office, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The leaders of the World Trade Organization recently called on member states to reach an agreement on possible waivers for vaccination patents. But even with the support of the US, an agreement is hardly guaranteed, since the decisions of the WTO are based on consensus and require the consent of all 164 members.

Germany, a WTO member and the largest economy in Europe, spoke out against the waiver proposal on Thursday. BioNTech, which worked with Pfizer to develop the vaccine, is based in Germany.

Bourla on LinkedIn also expressed concern that potential vaccination waivers “will discourage others from taking great risks”.

“The latest rhetoric isn’t going to stop us from continuing to invest in science. However, I’m not sure if the same is true of the thousands of tiny biotech innovators who are totally dependent on access to capital from investors who just do investing provided their intellectual property is protected, “wrote the CEO.

PhRMA, the pharmaceutical industry advocacy group that includes Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson, another US vaccine company, described the waiver as “an unprecedented move that will undermine our global response to the pandemic and put safety at risk”.

Meanwhile, Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel, maker of the other U.S.-approved Covid shot, said he wasn’t concerned about the possible exemptions.

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Robert Dunfee