The international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has filed a legal petition to the Supreme Court of South Korea requesting to review the patent granted to US pharmaceutical corporation Pfizer for its pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV). On November 29, 2017, the Patent Court of Korea upheld the patent granted to Pfizer for its PCV13 product, marketed as Prevnar13.
Unmerited patents like this are a barrier for people, governments, and treatment providers like MSF trying to protect children against pneumonia—a disease that kills almost one million kids every year or 2,500 per day.
This action before the Supreme Court of South Korea is the latest in a global fight to overturn Pfizer’s unmerited patents on PCV13 and increase competition worldwide by allowing manufacturers to develop and market more affordable PCV13, which would pave the way to protecting more children from this deadly disease.
MSF began challenging Pfizer’s unmerited patent in Korea last year after the same patent was revoked by the European Patent Office (EPO). Pfizer’s patent is also being legally challenged in India.
High-priced pneumonia vaccines and the lack of global competition are a significant part of why it is now 68 times more expensive to vaccinate a child with the full package of WHO-recommended vaccines than in 2001.
In fact, high prices charged by the only two companies that produce the vaccine are largely the reason approximately one-third of countries have not been able to introduce the pneumonia vaccine in their standard vaccination package and protect their children from a deadly but preventable disease.
Right now, many countries rely on Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, to support vaccinating their children, though more than twenty countries worldwide—and millions of children—are scheduled to lose their eligibility for this funding in the next several years.
“Doctors and nurses at MSF see each and every day the effects of high-priced pneumonia vaccines and the needless deaths that result from excessive profits taking precedence over public health,” said MSF-Korea General Director Thierry Coppens.
“South Korea is well-positioned to produce affordable and quality pneumonia vaccine that could save the lives of vulnerable children all over the world, however, Pfizer’s patent and global monopoly stand in the way of other vaccine developers that want to make and sell more affordable vaccines.”
Allowing multiple manufacturers to make and sell pneumonia vaccines would make it possible for more countries and treatment providers like MSF to secure affordable vaccines.
“In our work, we see many children with life-threatening respiratory infections; many deaths could be prevented if more kids were vaccinated with PCV,” said Dr Anas Shorman, a paediatrician working for MSF in Jordan.
“More than 50 countries have spoken out against high vaccine prices, and children in countries like Indonesia, Jordan, and Tunisia simply can’t wait any longer to get access to the lifesaving pneumonia vaccine.”
In India—known as the “pharmacy of the developing world”—MSF is challenging a patent on the same vaccine (the court hearing is also scheduled for this week).
The current patent blocks Indian producers from marketing a more affordable PCV13 until 2026.
“India’s patent office is constantly facing pressure from pharmaceutical corporations,” said Leena Menghaney, who is representing MSF before the Indian patent office and courts.
“The patent just encourages evergreening, which, in this case, is the mere addition of serotypes to the already-established seven-valent vaccine and does not involve a technical advancement; it is just a way to preserve Pfizer’s monopoly until 2026.
What’s being forgotten by patent offices that are often far removed from patients on the ground is that catering to pharma’s demands for more frivolous patents is a direct barrier to getting lifesaving medicines and vaccines in the hands of people all across the developing world.”
While challenges are ongoing in South Korea and India, an equivalent patent on PCV13 has already been revoked by the European Patent Office and China’s State Intellectual Property Office as it was considered unmerited as it did not meet the inventive step criteria.
South Korea initially rejected Pfizer’s PCV13 patent in 2012 but later granted it after the US corporation re-submitted the application.
The patent was later opposed by a Korean vaccine producer before the Patent Court of Korea. Typically, the Supreme Court of South Korea takes between three to nine months to make a decision after it hears the case.
The court can either uphold the patent or send the decision back to the Patent Court of Korea for reconsideration. Last year, MSF filed an amicus brief in support of revoking Pfizer’s patent given the global implications.