Campaigners call on the Scottish government to block pharmaceutical companies profiteering from Covid-19 treatments

Monday, 11 May, 2020

More than twenty organisations and academics have signed an open letter (1) to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon calling on the Scottish government to use its powers to override any patents that are put on new medicines and vaccines for Covid-19 in order to block pharmaceutical companies from profiteering from the pandemic.   

Last week, the UK government hosted a summit to raise funds for the global response to Covid-19. The UK government alone has contributed £544 million to towards developing new vaccines and other treatments for Covid-19, and other governments have also contributed generously. Yet pharmaceutical companies could buy up research and patent new discoveries developed using public money, which could then make them unaffordable to the NHS.  

In order to block such an injustice, a group of social justice organisations, public health groups and trade unions have written an open letter to the First Minister calling on her to use special licensing powers to side-step any patents that might stop coronavirus treatments and vaccine being affordable to the NHS.  

New medicines are usually patented by pharmaceutical companies, which can make them prohibitively expensive. International patent laws restrict governments from providing cheaper versions of branded medicines particularly when they first come onto the market. This can be a particular problem for poor countries where health budgets are much smaller than they are in the global north, and public health systems can also be less developed. But recently in the UK, including here in Scotland, the NHS has struggled to afford new and effective medicines because of the prohibitive prices of patented drugs.  

Yet all governments, including Scotland’s devolved administration, can sidestep pharmaceutical patents. International patent laws allow the manufacture of cheaper versions of vaccines and other medicines if it is considered to be in the public interest. This is called ‘compulsory licensing’. Germany and Canada took advantage of this in April when they amended public health laws in order to fast-track compulsory licensing of Covid-19 related medicines, equipment and vaccines when needed. Last month also, the parliaments of Chile and Ecuador passed resolutions that commit to the use of compulsory licensing during this global health emergency.  

The Scottish government can use these compulsory licensing powers – which in Scotland is called ‘Crown Use Licensing’ - even if the UK government makes different choices. The signatories to this open letter are calling on the First Minister to utilize these laws during this public health emergency, in solidarity with other governments around the world who understand that saving lives must come before any profits made on new treatments to deal with this global pandemic.  

Jane Herbstritt from Global Justice Now said:  

“In Scotland, and around the world, scientists are racing to develop a vaccine and treatments as part of a global response to the coronavirus pandemic.  We are calling for patent-free tests, treatments and vaccines that are available and affordable to everyone, anywhere in the world. However, pharmaceutical companies could make huge profits through the use of patents – and if they choose this route then it’s vital that governments step in and stop it. The Scottish government has the powers to do that here in Scotland through the use of special licensing laws. Our letter to Nicola Sturgeon calls on her to use those powers if needed in order to stop pharmaceutical company profits taking priority over human lives.”  


Notes to editors  

An open letter was sent to the First Minister on Friday. Find the full letter and the full list of signatories here.  Signatories to the letter include: The Poverty Alliance, STUC, UNISON Scotland, Unite Scotland, Just Treatment, Stop AIDS, Students for Global Health, Global Justice Now, Common Weal, Jubilee Scotland and academics from Strathclyde Law School.

For more information contact Liz Murray, Head of Scottish campaigns at Global Justice Now on 07841 919571 or email Liz  

For more information on the campaign for affordable medicine click here


Photo: Scottish Government/Flickr