- The National Institutes of Health is licensing 11 COVID-19 medical technologies it developed to a United Nations-backed global pool, announcing Thursday the non-exclusive agreement will cover vaccines, diagnostics and drug development tools.
- Manufacturers from around the world will be able to access the technologies and won't owe the NIH royalties for sales on products sold in 49 countries declared "least developed," primarily in Africa and South Asia.
- The NIH's agreement follows those of drugmakers like Merck & Co. and Pfizer, which both granted global access to their COVID-19 antiviral pills. The experimental vaccines shared under this agreement are the first to gain a global license through this program, although they could be months or years from use to prevent COVID-19.
While the wealthy nations of North America and Europe have paid up to secure ample supplies of COVID-19 drugs and vaccines, lower-income countries have fallen to the back of the line.
Vaccination rates are still low in many low-income countries, for example, and some of the most effective vaccines, like Moderna's and Pfizer's, aren't widely available in those countries. Agreements like Pfizer's to license its treatment Paxlovid to 35 manufacturers serving low-income countries, meanwhile, have been criticized for leaving out some nations with large populations.
The NIH's agreement won't immediately fix those failures, because it doesn't include approved vaccines or therapeutics. What the deal will do is give manufacturers looking to serve lower-income countries a low-cost way to access the tools to develop them.
"Whether it’s today’s pandemic or tomorrow’s health emergency, it’s through sharing and empowering lower-income countries to manufacture their own health tools that we can ensure a healthier future for everyone," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement.
The deal includes three NIH-backed experimental vaccines, all of which are built on non-coronavirus backbones. The first is a "virus-like particle" shot that uses proteins from a virus that usually affects poultry along with the signature "spike" protein that SARS-CoV-2 relies on to enter human cells. The other two are virus-based vaccines, one of which is intended for intranasal delivery in infants and young children, and the other of which is built on the same virus as Merck's ebola shot Ervebo.
To aid vaccine developers, the deal also covers NIH's prefusion coronavirus vaccine spike proteins and SARS-CoV-2 spike proteins that have already been licensed to many companies, along with spike protein immunogens and tools to develop harmless "pseudoviruses" for use in vaccine research.
For drug development, the NIH has licensed a way to produce the ACE2 protein the virus uses to enter human cells, along with a library of synthetic antibodies that researchers can use to find places where the spike protein can be blocked.