May 20, 2020/Press

Experts: Tillis Bill Could Let Big Pharma “Get In Between You and a Covid-19 Test”

Two experts, writing in the Guardian, today warned that a pro-pharma bill pushed by Senator Thom Tillis could make it harder for North Carolinians to get testing for coronavirus antibodies, allowing a single pharmaceutical company to “charge monopoly prices for its tests and prohibit competitors – including non-profit and university labs – from manufacturing or administering their own.”

Senator Tillis has been a “longtime…ally” for the pharmaceutical industry. Tillis was one of the top recipients of donations from CEOs of big pharmaceutical companies in 2019 and raked in more money from pharma PACs than any other member of Congress. He opposed a bipartisan effort to curb prescription drug prices, authoring instead “one of the most pro-pharma pieces of legislation before Congress.” Tillis even put “pressure” on another Republican Senator to water down their own legislation regulating the industry.

The Guardian: Could a patent get in between you and a Covid-19 test? Yes
By Chris Morten and Alex Moss
May 20, 2020

Key Points:

  • Imagine if one company held a patent covering all methods of testing for Covid-19 antibodies. The company could charge monopoly prices for its tests and prohibit competitors – including non-profit and university labs – from manufacturing or administering their own. If the company made itself the country’s sole supplier, it would struggle to meet demand. The company would profit, but Americans would face waiting lists, confusion and inequitable access – and the virus would keep spreading.
  • Would a patent holder ever exploit an outbreak of life-threatening infectious disease in this way? Yes. In 2001, the United States faced a credible threat of an anthrax outbreak, yet Bayer refused to license its patents on ciprofloxacin (Cipro), the most effective antibiotic treatment for anthrax, to competitors, even as Bayer itself struggled to supply the nation’s antibiotic stockpile.
  • Freed from overbroad patents on fundamental knowledge, we see an explosion of efforts to build and disseminate new tools to fight Covid-19, including 3-D printed and open source masks and ventilators and clinical trials on dozens of potential treatments and vaccines. While the US lags on deploying diagnostic testing, inventors are busily inventing: the FDA has authorized dozens of different Covid-19 tests. Some inventors may be motivated by the patent incentive – companies can still get patents, just within limits. But much is driven by altruism, love of science and the reputation that comes from inventing something that saves millions of lives. Today, no one company monopolizes Covid-19 testing, and all benefit.
  • Yet some patent holders and their allies are unwisely threatening this balance. Last year, with support from the largest pharmaceutical and biotech industry trade groups, Senators Chris Coons and Thom Tillis proposed a bill that would undo Mayo, Myriad, and Alice, expanding limits on patent eligibility. Pro-patent voices are now using the Covid-19 crisis to push the Coons-Tillis bill, asserting that broad patents on now-patent-ineligible subject matter are necessary to incentivize invention of anti-Covid technologies, especially diagnostic tests. That ignores evidence that the biggest problems we face are global shortages of unpatented basic supplies like nasal swabs and a failure of federal government coordination, not a shortage of inventive activity.
  • Congress should reject these efforts to undo the traditional balance and expand the scope of patent eligibility. The current legal standard may not be perfect, but it is working. In the Covid-19 crisis, Congress should focus instead on policies that give healthcare workers, other essential workers, patients, and all Americans the resources they need.