Pfizer CEO opposes U.S. call to waive Covid vaccine patents, cites manufacturing and safety issues

By | May 8, 2021

Sergeant Jennifer Callender (L) of the Illinois Air National Guard administers a Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine to Virginia Persha at a vaccination center established at the Triton College in River Grove, Illinois, on February 3, 2021.

Kamil Krzaczynski | AFP | Getty Images

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla warned Friday that waiving patent protections for Covid vaccines — a proposal President Joe Biden just endorsed — would set off a worldwide race for raw materials that threatens the safe and efficient manufacturing of Covid shots.

The Biden administration said Wednesday it supports the limited waiver of intellectual property rules in service of expanding vaccine distribution to the lower-income nations currently being battered by the pandemic.

But Bourla, whose company produces one of three vaccines approved for emergency use in the U.S., said that he believes “categorically” that the waiver proposal will “create more problems.”

“Currently, infrastructure is not the bottleneck for us manufacturing faster,” Bourla wrote in a dear colleague letter posted on LinkedIn. “The restriction is the scarcity of highly specialized raw materials needed to produce our vaccine.”

Pfizer’s vaccine requires 280 different materials and components that are sourced from 19 countries around the world, Bourla said. He contended that without patent protections, entities with much less experienced than Pfizer at manufacturing vaccines will start competing for the same ingredients.

“Right now, virtually every single gram of raw material produced is shipped immediately into our manufacturing facilities and is converted immediately and reliably to vaccines that are shipped immediately around the world,” Bourla wrote.

He predicted that the proposed waiver “threatens to disrupt the flow of raw materials.”

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Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla addresses a press conference after a visit to oversee the production of the Pfizer-BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine at the factory of U.S. pharmaceutical company Pfizer in Puurs, Belgium April 23, 2021.

John Thys | Pool | Reuters

“It will unleash a scramble for the critical inputs we require in order to make a safe and effective vaccine,” Bourla wrote.

“Entities with little or no experience in manufacturing vaccines are likely to chase the very raw materials we require to scale our production, putting the safety and security of all at risk,” the CEO wrote.

The White House referred CNBC’s outreach on Bourla’s post to the Office of U.S. Trade Representative, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

World Trade Organization leaders have recently urged member nations to come to an agreement on the potential vaccine patent waivers. But even with the U.S. backing, a deal is hardly guaranteed, since the WTO’s rulings are based on consensus, requiring approval from all 164 members.

Germany, a WTO member and the largest economy in Europe, came out against the waiver proposal on Thursday. BioNTech, which partnered with Pfizer in developing the vaccine, is based in Germany.

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Bourla on LinkedIn also expressed concern that the possible vaccine waivers “will disincentivize anyone else from taking a big risk.”

“The recent rhetoric will not discourage us from continuing investing in science. But I am not sure if the same is true for the thousands of small biotech innovators that are totally dependent on accessing capital from investors who invest only on the premise that their intellectual property will be protected,” the CEO wrote.

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PhRMA, the pharmaceutical industry interest groups whose member companies include Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson, another U.S. vaccine provider, called the waiver proposal “an unprecedented step that will undermine our global response to the pandemic and compromise safety.”

Meanwhile, CEO Stephane Bancel of Moderna, maker of the other U.S.-approved Covid shot, said he wasn’t concerned about the possible waivers.

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