27 March 2020

Rationing because of high prices and insufficient supply will prolong pandemic

As the world anxiously awaits the best medical tools to tackle COVID-19, at Doctors Without Borders (MSF), we are deeply concerned about the expected pandemic profiteering by the pharmaceutical industry on forthcoming drugs, tests, and vaccines for COVID-19 in places where we work including in South Africa and other countries affected by this pandemic.  

“I cannot think of a more urgent time for South Africa to safeguard our public health system. The Novel coronavirus poses a death threat to many lives, our health system and the economy as a country,  without access to an affordable treatment this problem will persist.”

Candice Sehoma, the MSF Southern Africa Access Campaign advocacy officer

We call on governments to prepare to suspend and override patents and take other measures, such as price controls, to ensure availability, reduce prices and save more lives.

“I cannot think of a more urgent time for South Africa to safeguard our public health system. The Novel coronavirus poses a death threat to many lives, our health system and the economy as a country,  without access to an affordable treatment this problem will persist,” says Candice Sehoma, the MSF Southern Africa Access Campaign advocacy officer.

“This moment presents an opportunity to step up our efforts in ensuring many lives are saved, this would prove impossible if we continue to put the interest of big pharma’s profiteering at the centre, This is an opportunity to put the lives and interest of ordinary South Africans first”.

Already, Canada, Chile, Ecuador and Germany have taken steps to make it easier to override patents by issuing ‘compulsory licenses’ for COVID-19 medicines, vaccines and other medical tools. Similarly, the government of Israel issued a compulsory license for patents on medicine they were investigating for use for COVID-19.

Following intense criticism from civil society groups and MSF, pharmaceutical corporation Gilead just gave up a special designation from the United States Food and Drug Administration (US FDA) that would have allowed for extended monopoly control over the 20-year patents it has filed for in more than 70 countries for its potential COVID-19 treatment candidate, remdesivir.

Preliminary results of clinical trials using remdesivir to treat COVID-19 are expected in April. However, Gilead has yet to commit to not enforcing its patents globally. 

“We know too well from our work around the world what it means to not be able to treat people in our care because a needed drug is just too expensive or simply not available.”

Dr Márcio da Fonseca, Infectious Disease Advisor at MSF’s Access Campaign

“Gilead has no business profiteering from this pandemic and must commit to not enforce or claim its patents and other exclusive rights,” said Dana Gill, US Policy Advisor for MSF’s Access Campaign. “Otherwise, Gilead is setting itself up to charge whatever it wants for remdesivir during this global health crisis, and for years to come. This is even more outrageous when you consider the tremendous amount of taxpayer dollars and public resources that have already contributed to the research and development of remdesivir.”

MSF is deeply concerned about access to any forthcoming drugs, tests, and vaccines for COVID-19 in places where MSF works and in other countries affected by this pandemic, and is urging governments to prepare to suspend or override patents for COVID-19 medical tools by issuing compulsory licenses. Removing patents and other barriers is critical to help ensure that there are sufficient suppliers selling at prices everyone can afford. 

“We know too well from our work around the world what it means to not be able to treat people in our care because a needed drug is just too expensive or simply not available,” said Dr Márcio da Fonseca, Infectious Disease Advisor at MSF’s Access Campaign. “In countries where pharmaceutical corporations enforce patents, we urge governments to set the wheels in motion to override these monopolies so they can ensure the supply of affordable drugs and save more lives.”

US diagnostic test maker Cepheid provides another example of pandemic profiteering. The corporation just received US FDA Emergency Use Authorization for a rapid COVID-19 test (Xpert Xpress SARS-CoV-2) that delivers results in just 45 minutes, using existing testing machines that have been routinely used for tuberculosis (TB), HIV and other diseases. 

"Pharmaceutical and diagnostics corporations are choosing to be part of the problem rather than part of the solution, showing that even in this acute global health crisis, they won’t do the right thing."

Dana Gill, US Policy Advisor for MSF’s Access Campaign

Pharmaceutical and diagnostics corporations are choosing to be part of the problem rather than part of the solution, showing that even in this acute global health crisis, they won’t do the right thing

Cepheid just announced they will charge around R353.00 per test in developing countries, including the world’s poorest countries where people live on less than R40.00 per day.

MSF and others’ research on Cepheid’s TB test (which uses a similar test cartridge for TB for which the corporation charges around R175.00 in developing countries), shows that the cost of goods, including manufacturing, overhead, and other expenses, for each cartridge, is as low as around R52.00, and therefore each test could be sold at a profit for R88.00.

“With a pandemic raging, now is not the time to test the highest prices the market will bear,” said Stijn Deborggraeve, Diagnostics Advisor at MSF’s Access Campaign. “We know now how critical testing is in this pandemic, so the tests need to be affordable for all countries.”

MSF warned that high prices and monopolies will result in the rationing of medicines, tests, and vaccines, which will only serve to prolong this pandemic. 

“Pharmaceutical and diagnostics corporations are choosing to be part of the problem rather than part of the solution, showing that even in this acute global health crisis, they won’t do the right thing,” said Gill. “We strongly call on governments to recognize how many lives are on the line and use their powers to make medicines, tests, and vaccines available, accessible, and affordable for everyone.”

Find out more about MSF's response to COVID-19 globally.