Statement of Knowledge Ecology International (KEI) on WHO Launch of the COVID-19 Technology Pool

Statement of Knowledge Ecology International (KEI) on WHO Launch of the COVID-19 Technology Pool

May 29, 2020.

KEI supports the “WHO Solidarity Call to Action: To realize equitable global access to COVID-19 health technologies through pooling of knowledge, intellectual property and data,” which, by the way, is a great title.

There are many positive aspects of this call to action, which was first proposed by the President and Minister of Health of Costa Rica, and which is now joined by dozens of countries from around the world. Focusing on universal access, international cooperation and solidarity, it points to concrete measures to address a key element of this effort: the access to or control of the inventions, data, know-how and biologic materials that are instrumental for manufacturing diagnostic tests, drugs, vaccines and other important technologies to diagnosis, treat and prevent COVID-19. Notably, the call is not restricted by the type of intellectual property, the technologies or the geography. Transparency, which is essential, is also endorsed.

The call focuses on voluntary action because the WHO does not grant or limit rights in patents, data or know-how; that is done at the national level, either through statutes, funding contractors or purchasing agreements. The role of national governments is extremely important, and while some of the focus has been on the poor responses from companies like Pfizer and AstraZeneca, such as at yesterday’s IFPMA press briefing, the role of government deserves more attention.

Of late, the Trump Administration has been scapegoating the WHO, in order to deflect responsibility for the United States’ mounting death toll and economic contractions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, some of the other countries that have yet to support the WHO technology pool are also important. In the European Union, Germany, France, Italy and Spain (its four most populous countries), are not among the initial supporters of the pool, despite all four making numerous calls for solidarity in the past weeks. Among the BRICS countries, only Brazil and South Africa are listed as supporters, while China, India and Russia have yet to endorse. Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK are also missing as endorsing countries.

On the other hand, CEPI, a major funder of COVID-19 vaccine research, will be on the call today, and while CEPI probably is not going as far as KEI wants, it is engaging and making a positive contribution. The Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust and other private funders should also support this effort.

For those UN agencies, countries, NGOs, experts and other individuals supporting this call, including large NGOs like MSF and Oxfam, and dozens if not hundreds of other groups (of all sizes), your role is extremely important now, in order to move this idea into a reality, with concrete, practical outcomes. Ellen ‘t Hoen deserves a special mention for her work to expand support for the pool.

Trade associations like the IFPMA internationally, and PhRMA in the United States, have tried to block progress on the WHO pool, even though it is a largely voluntary measure, because they don’t want transparent and inclusive participation in setting even voluntary standards for sharing rights in technologies. As part of this opposition, some trade associations (particularly PhRMA) and companies have downplayed the massive role of public sector subsidies for COVID-19 R&D, and the fact that much of the R&D has been de-risked by governments and other donors. Companies have also downplayed the role of patents and other rights as a factor that can both slow down the process and drive up the costs of making vaccines, as well as block competition or even stop some vaccines from being made (examples of vaccine patent disputes here).

Incentives provided by exclusive rights in inventions, data, etc., can be important, but exclusive rights also have costs. The rationale for exclusive rights is particularly weak in this pandemic, when the market is enormous, companies cannot even meet demand, and the government subsidies have been huge. It is notable that the WHO has among its speakers a recent CEO of Gilead, Gregg Alton, and a recent head of global intellectual property for Novartis, Paul Fehlner, who will both provide strong statements in favor of the pool.

KEI will continue to work with others to expand access to COVID-19 technologies, and to enhance transparency of all aspects of the research and development costs, subsidies and outcomes, prices and access.

The WHO and Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus are to be commended for their leadership, despite a lack of support from several of the WHO’s largest funders, so far. This is the right thing to do, and they have worked hard to move this forward.

US press coverage of the WHO proposal on pooling has been limited to a handful of trade and specialty publications, but the initiative has been covered more extensively in some other countries.

For more information:

James Love, Director, KEI, +1.202.361.3040
Thiru Balasubramaniam, KEI Europe,