ETAF : Defeating the Pandemic with the Tool of Sharing

With the current Covid-19 pandemic, research teams across the world are racing to find diagnostic tools, treatments and vaccines to help eradicate the virus. The world is focussed on science, innovation and technology, hoping a solution can be found. However, the biggest threat facing our opportunity to escape the virus is not the discovery of a vaccine, but how accessible the vaccine will be.


Following the agreement on trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights (TRIPS), in 1995, members of the World Trade Organisation must abide by minimum standards of intellectual property law which includes patents. This becomes increasingly dangerous when we talk about essential medicines, unrightly considered a corporate commodity that is traded and sold, just like any product. By using patents, multinational pharmaceutical companies are able to exploit their power over certain medicines and profit from them.


As patents allow exclusive rights to a medicine for 20 years, pricing competition can be excluded, therefore these companies can choose the price at which to sell the medicines for. These patents can often be extended utilising several techniques such as ‘evergreening’ or combing multiple patents. Existing pharmaceutical monopolies prove to be a major force preventing accessibility to essential medicines. Due to the growing influence of these companies, it is questionable whether the public funds used to develop these medicines are governed by the interest of the public or the companies themselves. In the context of Covid-19, patents will prolong the pandemic in the light of generating profits, putting life and health up for sale.


Often, pharmaceutical companies claim that their high medicine prices are justified, in order for them to undertake further research and development (R&D) for new medicines.  However, it is known that the majority of these funds are actually invested in sales and marketing, not in R&D for new medicines. The interest of pharmaceutical companies lies in their shareholders, where a disproportionate amount of their funds is spent on dividends to artificially boost their share price.


Despite a large proportion of funding for medical R&D coming from public sources, it is difficult to follow where these funds are allocated. Globally, up to two-thirds of upfront medical R&D costs are paid by the public. One-third of new medicines originate in public research institutions. With such a substantial public investment, there is no knowing however whether these drugs will be distributed equitably and whether the public will receive benefits from what they paid for. Medical R&D should be driven by health needs, not profits.


A major issue in medical R&D is the lack of safeguarding put in place to prevent exploitation by these companies. There is also a lack of transparency and without transparency, those who exploit cannot be held accountable. The funding streams are rarely available and how these funds are used are often hidden away from the public. Discussion of agreements and trade between organisations often go undercover. 


Public funding for Covid-19 has been substantial. The United Kingdom, for example, has been a large funder of Covid-19 R&D. According to a funding mapping project, UK universities have been allocating a total of €28 million in public funding, of this, €10,338,499 is dedicated towards research and development of vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics. The University of Oxford constitutes as the largest recipient of these grants followed by Imperial College of London, both leading promising trials in developing a Covid-19 vaccine which relies on public funds to operate.


Hence, universities play a vital role in medical R&D and have potential influence on how medicines can be distributed. Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM) has developed a policy framework named the Equitable Technology Access Framework (ETAF). This too is designed to ensure that publicly-funded developments of health technologies are made accessible and affordable to everyone. ETAF also makes recommendations on how public institutions can be held accountable for their role in ensuring access to their health technologies. This could act as a movement towards a solution by breaking up monopolies and bringing medical R&D back into the interest of the public. The aim is to implement ETAF in university socially responsible licencing (SRL) policies, which overall ensures that universities take a stronger role in prioritising accessibility of medicines. By promoting universities to adopt ETAF into their SRL policies, we can also help ensure that the research is more transparent to the public. This is fundamental within the context of a global pandemic where collaboration and sharing of research is key to preventing further lives to be under threat.




Stevie Lam