WITA Webinar: COVID-19 and Trade – The Path Toward a Cure – Drug Development and BioPharmaceutical Supply Chains
Wendy Cutler with the Washington International Trade Association (WITA)
On Thursday, May 14, the Asia Society Policy Institute (ASPI), along with the Washington International Trade Association (WITA), cohosted a webinar about what the U.S. biopharmaceutical industry is doing to develop vaccines and treatments for COVID-19, and how the industry is responding to concerns about vulnerabilities in the country’s medicine supply chains. ASPI Vice President Wendy Cutler and WITA Executive Director Ken Levinson were joined by Elissa Alben of Pfizer, Joseph Damond of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), and Jonathan Kimball of the Association for Accessible Medicines (AAM).
Cutler began the conversation by discussing news that broke earlier in the day that World Trade Organization (WTO) Director-General Roberto Azevêdo would be stepping down from his position a year before his term expires. Cutler stressed that finding a new WTO Director-General is a time-consuming process, and emphasized the need for the WTO to continue its work despite Azevêdo’s departure. “I would hope this selection process would not distract from the substantive work, and that WTO members find a way to do both at the same time,” Cutler said.
The rest of the discussion focused on biopharmaceutical supply chains and intellectual property protection issues in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. All three panelists emphasized that cooperation among countries would help pharmaceutical firms create treatments and vaccines faster. Cutler asked what to make of the fact that estimates on U.S. reliance on China and other countries for critical medicines and medical equipment are all over the map, and pointed out that some of these estimates have led to calls for onshoring of U.S. drug manufacturing. Kimball suggested that there is simply “not enough concrete information to have a clear sense of what data makes sense” when it comes to estimates of how many drugs are made abroad compared with at home. But he also said that onshoring was not necessarily a bad thing, as long as it makes business sense. “The U.S. government will have to help alleviate the high costs of bringing manufacturing plants on-line,” he said, calling for “long-term guaranteed contracts for price and volume” so that production shifts are viable.
Cutler asked the panel about whether compulsory licensing could be used to ensure that poorer countries had access to the same eventual treatments and vaccines at affordable prices, which Alben acknowledged was allowed under the international trading regime, but, she said, can also distort production incentives. She and Damond both underlined the general need for intellectual property protections for pharmaceutical companies that incentivized firms to invest in new drugs. Damond also expressed doubt as to whether a new plurilateral agreement on trade in medicines and medical equipment was viable amid broader international trade tensions. “All of those types of steps are kind of tied up because of the bigger problems the WTO is having,” he said.