Ebola Vaccine Delay May Be Due To An Intellectual Property Dispute

Illustration for article titled Ebola Vaccine Delay May Be Due To An Intellectual Property Dispute

For the past six weeks, about 800 to 1,000 doses of an experimental ebola vaccine have been sitting in a Canadian laboratory instead of being dispensed to West Africa. The delay, it would now appear, may be on account of an intellectual property spat.


Back on August 13th, the Canadian government announced that it would donate doses of its experimental Ebola vaccine to the international community. The World Health Organization would determine who receives it. The Canadian government still owns the patent, but it's licensed to a private company, the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The 800 to 1,000 doses should've been shipped to West Africa by now, but they haven't. The federal government says the delay is with the WHO, which is figuring out who should get the vaccine and how to ship it properly.

But according to ScienceInsider, there's another possibility: A U.S.-based company that purchased a license to the vaccine's commercialization from the Canadian feds is "dragging its feet." From Kai Kupferschmidt's article:

At the center of the controversy is NewLink Genetics, a small company in Ames, Iowa, that bought a license to the vaccine's commercialization from the Canadian government in 2010, and is now suddenly caught up in what WHO calls "the most severe acute public health emergency seen in modern times." Becker and others say the company has been dragging its feet the past 2 months because it is worried about losing control over the development of the vaccine. But Brian Wiley, vice president of business development at NewLink Genetics, says the company is doing all it can. "Our program has moved forward at an unprecedented pace," he says. Even if it took another few months, "we would still be breaking a record in terms of getting this into patients." Wiley says the holdup is "the administrative process": agreeing on a protocol, getting collaborators to sign the right contracts, securing insurance in case something goes wrong. [emphasis added]

Breaking a record? Rights contracts and securing insurance? How about trying to cut through all the red tape and striving to save lives instead? What's more, during a crisis like this, governments should step in and offer special protections to private firms. In this case, it's the Canadian government that owns the patent, after all.

The CBC has also been investigating this story:

For months, CBC News has been asking what the Canadian government received from NewLink Genetics and another company, Defyrus/LeafBio, in exchange for licensing rights for the experimental Ebola vaccine and the ZMapp drug cocktail, respectively.

It's also not known whether Canada still has a voice in the development and dissemination of the treatments.

Officials with the Public Health Agency of Canada have maintained that the contracts are confidential, but they affirm that Canada still owns the patent and the intellectual property.

"The Canadian government holds the patent for this vaccine and has licensed the rights to NewLink Genetics through its wholly owned subsidiary BioProtection Systems to commercialize the product," an agency spokesperson stated in an email to CBC News.

"The agency retained rights related to research and emergency response."

What a horrible mess. While it's understandable that there are certain risks involved when using experimental drugs, this case clearly warrants special consideration. Considering that front-line workers will (likely) be the first to receive the vaccine, it's safe to assume they'd welcome it (to date 216 healthcare workers have been killed in the epidemic). Potential recipients should be advised of the risks and offered the choice to take the vaccine or not.

This epidemic is serving as a wake-up call to the world. The Ebola response has been dawdling and mired in bureaucratic nonsense. Worse, it also smacks of epidemic profiteering.

Check out the articles at ScienceInsider and CBC News.

Image: Alex011973/Shutterstock.




This is why we need to radically overhaul the patent process.

Frankly I think we should get rid of patents and find an alternate way of doing the same thing. You know why patents are in the Constitution? Because they are an old, old legalistic concept. Maybe it's time to rethink them.

I know Dean Baker has at least suggested replacing patents with some sort of monetary award... and I think that makes some sense. And there might be some other ideas too, but patents are coming to counterproductive— slowing progress rather than speeding it up. On top of that most of these things are at least partially funded by governments directly or indirectly (universities).

I'm sick of hearing the defenses for patents when patents are clearly not doing what they were designed to do. The public concern is not that things are profitable— that is merely a means to an end to encourage faster progress. When this slows down the spreading of new info and technologies more than it speeds up research, it screws us.

And, yes, we are in a different age, which might be part of the reason patents no longer work for good (or at least without ill). Consider the "low-hanging fruit" theory of Tyler Cowen. We have already discovered the things that inventors working in their garages can make (speaking only of important things, the kind that are actually public goods... not a slightly new version of the iPhone).

To create something new now requires economy of scale, a lot of specialists sharing information and working as a team, diverse information and resources. That's probably why patents are slowing us down nowadays. To reach the next big thing we need to synthesize many of the current big things, and we need some competitive incentive to do so. Letting a company sit on today's big thing and giving them every incentive to wait until they've milked it for all its worth before moving on to the next (since no one else can use their discovery till the patent ends, there is no market punishment for such a wait).