How to man­u­fac­ture Covid-19 vac­cines with­out the help of J&J, Pfiz­er or Mod­er­na? Bi­ol­yse sees the dif­fi­cul­ties up close

When Bi­ol­yse, an On­tario-based man­u­fac­tur­er of ster­ile in­jecta­bles, forged a deal with Bo­livia last week to man­u­fac­ture up to 50 mil­lion J&J Covid-19 vac­cine dos­es, the agree­ment kicked off what will prove to be a test case for how dif­fi­cult the sys­tem of com­pul­so­ry li­cens­es is to nav­i­gate.

The first prob­lem: When Bi­ol­yse asked J&J, via a March let­ter, to li­cense its Covid-19 vac­cine, man­u­fac­ture it in Cana­da and pay 5% roy­al­ties on ship­ments to needy, low-in­come coun­tries, J&J re­ject­ed the of­fer, re­fus­ing to ne­go­ti­ate. J&J al­so did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

With an un­will­ing J&J, Bi­ol­yse then turned to the Cana­di­an gov­ern­ment to li­cense the patents un­der a pro­gram called the Cana­di­an Ac­cess to Med­i­cines Regime, which al­lows the ex­port of drugs and vac­cines to low-in­come coun­tries like Bo­livia, with the hopes of bet­ter­ing their re­spons­es to pub­lic health crises like HIV/AIDS, tu­ber­cu­lo­sis and oth­ers.

But for those drugs or vac­cines to be ex­port­ed from Cana­da, they need to be in­clud­ed in a list cre­at­ed by the Cana­di­an gov­ern­ment, known as Sched­ule 1, which is part of the coun­try’s Patent Act.

James Love

So far, Cana­da has not added Covid-19 drugs or vac­cines to that list.

“Block­ing the list­ing on Sched­ule 1 is re­al­ly bull­shit,” James Love, di­rec­tor of the NGO Knowl­edge Ecol­o­gy In­ter­na­tion­al, who’s been push­ing to in­crease ac­cess to Covid-re­lat­ed vac­cines and ther­a­peu­tics, told End­points News. “It’s bizarre that Covid-19 is not con­sid­ered a glob­al health is­sue in Cana­da.”

A spokesper­son for the Cana­di­an gov­ern­ment’s In­no­va­tion, Sci­ence and Eco­nom­ic De­vel­op­ment pro­gram ex­plained to End­points that it’s al­so not just about adding Covid-19 vac­cines to Sched­ule 1.

“It’s im­por­tant to note that adding a COVID vac­cine to Sched­ule 1 would not al­low a com­pul­so­ry li­cense for the pro­duc­tion and ex­port of these vac­cines. A com­pa­ny seek­ing au­tho­riza­tion un­der Cana­da’s Ac­cess to Med­i­cines Regime must be able to man­u­fac­ture the drug and con­duct nec­es­sary tri­als to es­tab­lish that the drug meets Cana­di­an safe­ty and ef­fi­ca­cy re­quire­ments be­fore au­tho­riza­tion would be grant­ed,” she said.

John Ful­ton

Bi­ol­yse’s EVP John Ful­ton told End­points that his com­pa­ny could re­verse en­gi­neer the J&J vac­cine from a cou­ple drops from a vial, but the com­pa­ny would need J&J’s co­op­er­a­tion to run a tri­al and it will need ad­di­tion­al gov­ern­ment funds to scale up.

And while the gov­ern­ment spokesper­son said she’s “close­ly fol­low­ing the sit­u­a­tion” be­tween Bi­ol­yse and Bo­livia, Ful­ton said the gov­ern­ment has not been straight­for­ward in ex­plain­ing how to add Covid-19 vac­cines to Sched­ule 1.

“I start­ed in­quir­ing in late Feb­ru­ary 2021 and still they won’t give me an an­swer on how to start the process,” Ful­ton said via text mes­sage. “I’ve had meet­ings with close to 30 dif­fer­ent high-lev­el of­fi­cials and no straight an­swer on how to trig­ger the ad­di­tion.”

Bi­ol­yse said in its agree­ment with Bo­livia that it should be able to pro­duce 200,000 dos­es per week, if it ob­tains the com­pul­so­ry li­cense.

But the odds of that oc­cur­ring are low, be­cause, as Ful­ton ex­plained, it will re­quire Cana­di­an gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials to go out on a limb, and “spend the po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal and have the courage to wade in­to the geopo­lit­i­cal storm that will en­sue when they sig­nal they sup­port the loos­en­ing of IP to vac­ci­nate LMIC [low-to-mid­dle in­come coun­tries].”

Adding Covid-19 vac­cines to Sched­ule 1 al­so would open the door for Bi­ol­yse and oth­ers to make not just J&J’s vac­cine, but Pfiz­er and Mod­er­na’s mR­NA vac­cines too, which fur­ther com­pli­cates the sit­u­a­tion.

“150 dif­fer­ent things need to hap­pen for a CL [com­pul­so­ry li­cense] to be is­sued in Cana­da just on the ex­port side,” Ful­ton added. “The TRIPS waiv­er stream­lines this process on the im­porter side.”

Pfiz­er and Mod­er­na have both made clear in re­cent weeks that they are not go­ing to help any com­pa­nies try­ing to make copy­cat ver­sions of their prod­ucts, es­pe­cial­ly as they would be vy­ing for the same raw ma­te­ri­als and nec­es­sary equip­ment.

And the Cana­di­an gov­ern­ment does not seem ready to budge, at least for now.

In­stead, the spokesper­son said the coun­try will in­vest about $2.2 bil­lion over sev­en years to­wards grow­ing a vi­brant do­mes­tic bio­man­u­fac­tur­ing and life sci­ences sec­tor, while al­so pro­vid­ing $940 mil­lion in sup­port for low- and mid­dle-in­come coun­tries to ac­cess COVID-19 vac­cines, tests, and treat­ments through the WHO’s ACT-Ac­cel­er­a­tor.

So will Bi­ol­yse raise funds and move their op­er­a­tions to an­oth­er coun­try where ob­tain­ing a com­pul­so­ry li­cense and reg­u­la­to­ry clear­ance might be eas­i­er?

No, ac­cord­ing to Ful­ton, ex­plain­ing that Bi­ol­yse has the req­ui­site fa­cil­i­ty now, and adding a fill line to a new site would add be­tween 18 months and two years to the en­tire process. But he al­so thinks that ob­tain­ing a com­pul­so­ry li­cense is about more than deal­ing with Covid-19 in the short term

“I think Covid will be with us for a long time, and I hate to say it, but we have the time. What’s hap­pen­ing in In­dia could hap­pen to us in Cana­da,” Ful­ton added. “If a com­pul­so­ry li­cense sys­tem can’t work now, dur­ing a world­wide pan­dem­ic, what’s it for? What’s the use?”

Illustration: Assistant Editor Kathy Wong for Endpoints News

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