If you watched the Downing Street press briefing on Monday 23rd November 2020 then, amongst the utterances of “jolly” and “alas” from the UK Prime Minister, you may have noticed a comment from Prof Andrew Pollard.
Prof Pollard – director of the Oxford vaccine group – said that, with pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca, they had agreed a not-for-profit approach during the pandemic for the University of Oxford vaccine.
So, what does this mean? How could they make a profit? And why have they agreed this approach?
Well, the University of Oxford have set out default guidelines on how their intellectual property relating to Covid-19 will be used and exploited. They say that licenses for the relevant intellectual property rights will be offered at a price to allow at-cost or cost + limited margin supply.
But this will only be for the duration of the pandemic, as defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO). This therefore leaves the door open for making a profit on the vaccine after the WHO considers the disease to be no longer spreading worldwide.
The main licences that the University of Oxford would be offering with regards to the vaccine would be for patent rights to the vaccine itself or methods of manufacturing the vaccine. Patents are rights offered by governments which provide a limited term monopoly to the owner or licensor for making/selling/using an invention. Patents are typically an important part of how new pharmaceutical developments are made, since they provide the opportunity to recoup the large investment costs required.
Patent applications usually take 18 months to publish, so the University of Oxford vaccine patent application is likely not publicly available yet. Possibly one relevant patent application might be GB2001486.6 going to a process for making adenoassociated viral vectors, although the details of this are not publicly available at time of writing, so this cannot presently be confirmed.
The University of Oxford and AstraZeneca have likely agreed the not-for-profit approach in a bid to maintain and improve public relations.
Unwise enforcement of intellectual property rights can have a negative impact on public relations in the best of times, but in the grip of a damaging pandemic this could be disastrous.
Additionally, to some, “big pharma” has a bad reputation – supposedly exploiting the sick for large profits. A magnanimous approach to Covid-19 vaccine distribution provides pharmaceutical companies an unprecedented shot at global redemption in the court of public opinion.
Once the pandemic has ended and public interest has subsided, it seems doubtless that large numbers of Covid-19 vaccines will still be required. At this point, the University of Oxford could pursue a more typical patent commercialisation approach – even a modest royalty fee on vaccine production would allow for large returns.
However, the University of Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine development has been decidedly atypical – receiving huge levels of public funding ($1.7 billion as suggested by Médecins Sans Frontières). In view of this, some might question whether the developers should retain rights for any form of commercialisation. Therefore, the level of any royalty fee will need to be carefully balanced with the desire to maintain positive public relations. Careful monitoring of public opinion would be advisable.
The approach from University of Oxford seems wise and appears to strike a good balance between the potential to earn money (which is necessary to help make the scientific breakthroughs of tomorrow) whilst mitigating the risk of outraging the public due to accusations of profiteering. This approach would seem a sensible model for other entities developing Covid-19 related products or services.
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