UK Govt spent £1.5 billion to develop COVID health tools; failed to attach safeguards ensuring global equitable access in extractive R&D system

Campaigners brand approaches to R&D as extractive and colonial in new report

  • UK Government agencies spent £1.5 billion to fund the development of COVID-19 diagnostics, vaccines, and therapeutics, and to scale up the UK’s vaccine manufacturing capacity.
  • One drug, Tocilizumab, saw over £115 million of public investment toward its trial only for shortages to exist globally and for patients on the NHS, all whilst Roche Pharmaceuticals maintained a monopoly on the drug, recording sales of £2.1 billion in 2021.
  • Report details case studies of extensive public investment in COVID-19 medical tools purchased by the NHS at a cost of £912 million.
  • Report, released as the World Health Assembly discusses a new  Pandemic Treaty, brands UK government policy on medicines as neo-colonial, and argues pharmaceutical industry behaviour mirrors the extractive industry the denies access to low- and middle-income nations.

In a new report out today, Access Denied: Extractive Research and Development During the COVID-19 Pandemic, research reveals that across the R&D-to-manufacturing continuum, the Government failed to attach meaningful public access conditions to public expenditure.

In doing so, this allowed Big Pharma to limit supply and charge high prices for products in the UK and abroad, resulting in high-income nations using their economic and political power to buy up health tools at higher monopoly prices, hampering access to low- and middle-income countries which found themselves de-prioritised.

This resulted in, amongst other things, extreme vaccine inequity; on the first of January 2022 90.1% of the UK population had received a first dose and almost 60% had received a booster whilst at the same time just 7.6% of people in low-income nations had received a first dose.

Citing these factors, as well as historic wealth extraction from the global south to the UK, international trade rules, and global debt repayments, global health advocates at STOPAIDS and Just Treatment brand system and industry practices as colonial and extractive.

The report calls for a coherent strategy to ensure that support from publicly-funded institutions results in affordable access for the NHS and populations across the world. This would involve attaching public interest conditions covering availability, affordability, tech transfer, open access, and transparency to the research and development of health tools.

James Cole, Advocacy Manager at STOPAIDS, said:

“In a global pandemic, the Government implemented a response fuelled by nationalism. In doing so, it failed people in lower-income nations by doling out public money to develop tests, treatments and vaccines without conditions for industry to ensure these tools are affordable and accessible for all.

Handing the reins to Big Pharma to take products developed with taxpayer funds and market them back primarily to high-income nations in an effort to maximise profit is an abject failure of public health responsibility.

It’s time for a new R&D model that doesn’t perpetuate extractive and colonial dynamics that threaten public health. ”

Dr. Elia Badjo, who worked on the frontline pandemic response in the DRC, said: 

“I felt like I was fighting the pandemic with an arm tied behind my back. It’s simple, we lacked necessary tools and people died. Why? We have an extractive health system that sees nations who profited from colonialism continue the 19th and 20th century approach to medical research – where the goal was to prioritise the lives of people in the predominantly wealthy, white global north above others.

When it comes to pandemics, we aren’t racing against each other, we are all racing against the virus; there is no need for some of us to be left so far behind.”

Aasiya Versi, Pharma Organiser at Just Treatment, said:

“The reality of the pharmaceutical industry’s business model is rarely discussed. Each year, it costs the lives of millions of marginalised people across the global south in order to sustain billions of pounds of profits generated in the West off the back of public funding and public research. But this reality was laid bare by the pandemic and is clearly detailed in this report.

This racist, colonial system is extracting huge amounts of public resource and turning it into private profit. For the sake of everyone’s health we need to act upon its recommendations, that would mean the government wrestles back power from these corporations to recentre public health in our medical innovation model.”