Achieving Clinical Equality in an Influenza Pandemic: Patent Realities
A twenty-first century novel influenza A (H1N1) pandemic is currently unfolding, and the eventual scope of this public health crisis is not clear. In addition, ongoing surveillance of the avian influenza A (H5N1) virus reveals outbreaks of human-to-human transmission of the virus, with significant mortality. Effective pandemic management depends on pharmaceutical intervention with two different clinical objectives: the generation of an immune response to specific viral strains (vaccination) and the reduction of viral replication in an infected individual (antiviral administration). The ability to offer pharmaceutical interventions for a public health crisis depends on three factors: development, capacity, and access. Pharmaceutical measures must be developed, capacity must be established, and access must be ensured. The article discusses the three nodes of patenting that influence the availability of pharmaceutical countermeasures in an influenza pandemic. Identification of the causative influenza virus is the first step in pandemic management and precedes vaccine design, and the virus and its RNA sequence are both knowledge assets and inputs for vaccine design. Vaccine development, therefore, will be influenced by any patents on the genetic sequences or proteins of the pandemic virus, as well as on novel methods for vaccine production, the actual vaccine or adjuvant technology, all of which are relevant to the assembly of a working vaccine on short notice. Pharmaceutical treatment of influenza infection during a pandemic could also rely on use of patented antiviral drugs, whose efficacy may be revealed as the pandemic unfolds. Unlike vaccines, these are not generally developed de novo for a pandemic, but their availability could be dependent on the exercise of patent rights by market incumbents. Patent rights could control capacity, which may determine access. Pandemic planning must consider how patenting can influence development, capacity and access to pharmaceutical interventions. The national and international public health authorities are slowly integrating intellectual property considerations into pandemic planning. Further integration will anticipate the emergence of patent claims, identify any relevant patents, encourage access norms, and consider the use of legal mechanisms that could alleviate patent-mediated obstacles to the availability of critical products and methods that may be patented. Pandemic management must also co-exist with existing efforts to control seasonal influenza outbreaks. The article analyzes the intersection of patent nodes relevant to vaccine development and to antiviral distribution during a global influenza pandemic, identifying where such patents may facilitate or inhibit the availability of pharmaceutical countermeasures, and offers preliminary observations on the emerging novel H1N1 pandemic. The goal of international clinical equality is essential for the eradication of an influenza pandemic, and strategies for its achievement can also be applied to other diseases.