MSF: Governments must demand pharma make all COVID-19 vaccine deals public

Measles campaign in DRC

Democratic Republic of Congo 2019 © Pablo Garrigos/MSF

Terms of a recently-disclosed licensing deal show pharma will not do the right thing and ensure access to lifesaving vaccines, even during a pandemic when the creation of these vaccines is being heavily funded by taxpayers

NEW YORK/GENEVA, NOVEMBER 11, 2020—The international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is calling on governments all over the world to urgently demand transparency from pharmaceutical corporations on COVID-19 vaccine licensing agreements. This call comes after the worrying terms of a deal struck between pharmaceutical corporation AstraZeneca and Brazilian public research body Fundação Oswaldo Cruz (Fiocruz) were recently disclosed. It’s critical that companies also disclose clinical trial costs and data—especially considering that taxpayers have contributed $10 billion towards the research and development (R&D) of these potential vaccines—so people know what a fair price would be for the product, MSF said.

Fiocruz, which is negotiating COVID-19 vaccine purchases and manufacturing vaccines on behalf of the Brazilian government, recently took an important step towards more transparency by publishing online the licensing agreement with AstraZeneca to produce at least 100 million vaccine doses (AZD1222). Although the agreement was published with redactions, it nonetheless represents a step that should encourage other governments to follow suit and take action towards more transparency.

Without knowing the details of vaccine licensing agreements—as well as components of R&D like clinical trial costs and data—it is impossible for people, treatment providers like MSF, and governments to demand affordable prices and scrutinize critical safety and efficacy data. Unless governments demand this transparency, the pharmaceutical industry will continue its usual business approach and charge high prices for COVID-19 products and prioritize people who can pay the most. This approach, which will exclude people all over the world who need these vaccines, is unacceptable. The COVID-19 pandemic won’t be over for anyone until it’s over for everyone.

“As long as we don’t know what’s in these deals, pharma will continue to hold the power to decide who gets access when, and at what price,” said Kate Elder, senior vaccines policy advisor for MSF’s Access Campaign. “Without decisive action from governments demanding more transparency from companies, equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines is in jeopardy. The public has the right to know what’s in these deals—there is no place for secrets during a pandemic. There is too much at stake.”

A previous version of Fiocruz’s deal with AstraZeneca showed that there are limits to AstraZeneca’s public "no profit" commitments, and that the company has given itself the power to declare the pandemic over as soon as July 2021. This means that, after July 2021, AstraZeneca could charge governments and other purchasers high prices for a vaccine that was entirely funded by the public. The original exclusive license between AstraZeneca and Oxford University has still not been made public—the terms of which largely determine the terms of the company’s subsequent deals with other vaccine manufacturers around the world. People with knowledge of the AstraZeneca-Oxford license have questioned AstraZeneca’s “no profit” commitment, saying that AstraZeneca may charge as much as 20 percent more than the costs associated with producing the vaccine.

Pharmaceutical corporations have a very poor track record of transparency across the board—from licensing deals and technology transfers to costs of R&D and clinical trial data—and the little information that has been revealed around AstraZeneca’s not-for-profit promises should be a warning sign that pharma cannot be trusted to act in the interest of public health. This lack of transparency or guarantee of affordability is happening despite the fact that AstraZeneca has stated several times that the development of its COVID-19 vaccine will have no financial implications for the company since “expenses to progress the vaccine are anticipated to be offset by funding by governments and international organizations.”

“Even with billions of dollars of public, taxpayer money paying for these vaccines, and billions of lives at stake, we continue to be left in the dark,” said Roz Scourse, policy advisor for MSF’s Access Campaign. “This leaves us scrambling to determine critical information such as the price and supply of any future COVID-19 vaccines, and what this means for equitable access.”

Other than the agreement with Fiocruz, AstraZeneca’s sub-licenses with other manufacturers in South Africa, India, and other countries, have also not yet been disclosed. However, AstraZeneca is far from the only company not being transparent. COVID-19 vaccine licensing deals are being struck left and right by vaccine developers and producers around the world. These deals are being kept secret from the public despite unprecedented levels of public taxpayer money paying for these vaccines. Over $10 billion has been poured into the R&D, clinical trials, and manufacture of six front-runner candidate COVID-19 vaccines developed by AstraZeneca/Oxford University (over $1.7 billion) Johnson&Johnson/BiologicalE ($1.5 billion), Pfizer/BioNTech ($0.5 billion), GlaxoSmithKline/Sanofi Pasteur ($2.1 billion), Novavax/Serum Institute of India (nearly $2 billion), and Moderna/Lonza ($2.48 billion).

Governments around the world must be bold at this critical juncture for the health of billions of people, take responsibility for the billions of public dollars that they have handed over for these vaccines without attaching any strings, and demand that pharmaceutical corporations urgently make public all licenses, agreements, clinical trial costs, and data related to COVID-19 vaccines.

“Despite repeated assurances from heads of state that any COVID-19 vaccine will be a global public good, and despite claims that we’re seeing industry at its best, the reality is that up to this point it is clear that pharma cannot be trusted to act in the interest of public health,” Scourse said. “Even in these unprecedented times.”

*Correction: An earlier version of this press release stated that Pfizer/BioNTech had received $2.5 billion in public funding, taking into consideration $1.95 billion from the US government's Operation Warp Speed. However, the $1.95 billion was not at-risk funding and therefore does not directly fund manufacturing scale-up. The total public funding for the six frontrunner candidates has also been edited to reflect the corrected total, which is more than $10 billion.