On April 24, Elizabeth de Carvalhaes, executive president of Interfarma, a trade group for Brazilian pharmaceutical companies, acknowledged out loud what the drug industry has hitherto avoided saying in public. In an interview with Folha de S. Paulo, Brazil’s most widely circulated newspaper, de Carvalhaes stated that if Brazil approves compulsory licensing to extend access to Covid-19 vaccinations, pharmaceutical corporations may protest by delaying vaccine supply.
This was no frivolous threat. Interfarma represents Pfizer, Gilead, AstraZeneca, and other major pharmaceutical companies. Moreover, the comments were made by the trade group’s spokesperson when Brazil was on the verge of collapse: More than 71,000 new Covid-19 cases were reported in Brazil on the same day the story was published.
Interfarma implied threat against such a measure highlights a dynamic that public health advocates say is especially dangerous during a pandemic. Countries that offend drug companies by supporting efforts to override patents risk incurring the wrath of an industry that has the power to determine whether a large portion of their population lives or dies.Patents are being challenged in various ways, including at the World Trade Organization (WTO), where nations in the Global South are leading an attempt to suspend necessary international patent regulations to mass manufacture cheaper, generic vaccines.