Lack of transparency, strict use of trade secrets by UK Government undermines pandemic response, new reports show
On anniversary of UK lockdown being announced, report analysis demonstrates how UK was less transparent than other nations in vaccine procurement
New Access Denied reports from STOPAIDS and Just Treatment, released today, uncover how a systemic lack of transparency and extensive use of trade secrets by Big Pharma companies gave them undue influence over Government decision-making and prevented public accountability; likely contributing to the gross inequity we have seen in access to COVID-19 health technologies worldwide.
The Big Pharma Influence report cites evidence including heavily redacted vaccine contracts that have not been released despite FOI requests. It also points to a secrecy clause in a contract with Pfizer. This clause ensures any arbitration meetings between the Government and the company would be held in secret; compared with other contracts analysed from high-income countries with Pfizer, this clause is unique to the UK.
The Trade Secrets report highlights how the Government has refused, despite FOI requests, to disclose redacted information in COVID-19 vaccine contracts on dose pricing, dose donations, liability rules, ownership of intellectual property and industrial trade secrets. Their explanation cites “public interest in ensuring that the commercial interests of external companies are not damaged”. By prioritising trade secret protection over transparency during the public procurement of COVID-19 vaccines, generic manufacturers were prevented from producing vaccines which could have improved access in lower-income nations.
The report warns that without building pandemic resilience into the legal system through urgent reform, the UK will not have the necessary mechanisms to facilitate global equitable access to health tools to fight future pandemics.
Dr Olga Gurgula, Senior Lecturer in IP law and co-author of the Trade Secrets report, said:
“The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the fundamental flaws of the current system of pharmaceutical innovation and access to medicines, and should be reconsidered. Efficient technology transfer and transparency are vital to ensure effective protection of public health, including during emergencies.”
Dr Luke McDonagh, Assistant Professor in IP Law and co-author of the Trade Secrets report, said:
“At present, proposals to improve rules on transparency, data sharing, technology sharing, and IP flexibilities, are being discussed in the negotiations over the WHO Pandemic Treaty and the WHO International Health Regulations. The UK government should take this opportunity to promote openness and build resilience into our domestic and global health systems.”
Furthermore, the report points to conflicts of interest in the pandemic response; Amanda Milling was the Minister responsible for Global Health from September 2021 to September 2022, during which time she held shares in AstraZeneca. Ranil Jayawardena MP – the Minister for International Trade from May 2020 to September 2022 – retained shares (originally worth £20,000 in 2019) in PepTCell through 2021; a subsidiary of this company sought to commercialise COVID vaccines from 2020 onwards. AstraZeneca, Milling, and Jayawardena opposed the waiver in public statements.
Izzie Jani-Friend, Patient Leader at Just Treatment, said:
“As a Cystic Fibrosis patient in the UK I was at the front of the vaccine queue, while my family in India were forced to wait, in fear for their lives and those of their friends and loved ones. It was devastatingly unfair.
I am ashamed to learn that Amanda Milling, a minister who opposed proposals to openly share vaccine technology globally, held shares in AstraZeneca. Whose interests was she prioritising? Blocking these proposals helped sustain a vaccine apartheid globally – while Big Pharma and its cheerleaders hoarded technology.”
Mike Podmore, Director of STOPAIDS, said:
“Transparency fosters trust. The public has a right to know about procurement contracts and Ministers interests in full, particularly given their staunch opposition to the vaccine patent waiver amidst gross inequitable access between high income countries and those living in lower-income nations.
Ultimately, the Government must put public health interests above private company profits. We need a democratic pharmaceutical model that can develop the vaccines and medicines we need at speed, but that ensures global equitable access in order to truly stamp out infectious diseases that result in preventable deaths and economic chaos worldwide.”
Given their respective financial interests, Milling and Jayawardena stood to potentially gain from their position opposing the waiver; raising the question of how conflicts of interest are managed in Government at times of international crises.
- Two reports; ‘Access Denied: The Role of Trade Secrets in Preventing Global Equitable Access to COVID-19 Tools’ and ‘Access Denied: The Impact of Big Pharma Influence on UK Government Decision-Making in the COVID-19 Pandemic’
- The percentage of people having received a first dose of a COVID vaccine source: https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/share-people-vaccinated-covid?country=Low+income~Lower+middle+income~High+income
- PepTCell subsidiary ConserV Bioscience Limited has plans to commercialise vaccines and a number of current patents.
- List of Ministers interests: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/list-of-ministers-interests
- Negotiations on a Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) waiver for COVID-19 vaccines, that over 100 countries and over 170 former world leaders and nobel laureates were in favour of passing, came to a limited compromise agreement in March 2022 after a small handful of governments – including the UK – were opposed to it. The waiver would have supported local manufacturing of generic COVID vaccines to address inequitable access.
- At the time of the TRIPS waiver outcome decision in March 2022, fewer than 14% of people in low-income countries had received a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, compared to 77% of people in high-income nations. More than 1.3 million lives could have been saved if vaccines had been equitably distributed in 2021.
- Responding to the report’s findings, a Government spokesperson said: “We consulted a variety of stakeholders during the TRIPS discussions on vaccine supplies, including representatives from industry, NGOs and academia as well as WTO Members on both sides of the debate. Our position was clear from the start that we wanted an outcome that would genuinely be effective in addressing vaccine inequity whilst not undermining the existing Intellectual Property framework.”. On ministerial interests they added: “The Ministerial Code sets out the process by which ministers, following their appointment to a new role, should declare and manage their interests, working with their Permanent Secretary.”
STOPAIDS is a UK-based HIV, health and rights network. We draw on our 35-year experience working on the HIV response to support UK and global movements to challenge systemic barriers and inequalities so that we can end AIDS and support people around the world to realise their right to good health and wellbeing.
Just Treatment is a patient-led movement fighting to ensure everyone gets the healthcare they need by challenging the power of the pharmaceutical and health industries and demanding that the government acts to put patients before corporate profits.
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