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Komal Kalha: on COVID – and the next pandemic

Komal Kalha is head of IP and trade policy at the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations, the biopharmaceutical industry’s trade body. She talks to Charlotte Kilpatrick about the need for a strong incentive system to help the industry prepare for the next pandemic.

How would you describe your role at IFPMA? What is a normal day at the ‘office’ for you?

I lead the work on intellectual property and trade policy. This involves advising policy makers and our members, who are companies and national trade bodies, on IP and trade issues that are being discussed across UN agencies, the WTO, WIPO, G7, G20 and OECD.

For the past year, there has understandably been a great deal of focus on the development of COVID therapeutics and vaccines and how these need to reach patients. However, the basics haven’t changed, just amplified.

My role is to equip policy makers with the explanation of the important role of IP incentives in the larger innovative ecosystem and understand if there are any IP or trade barriers which would hamper patient access. In doing so, my advocacy is geared towards providing strategic advice on local, regional, and multilateral issues from a cross-sector business and legal perspective to provide a policy solution.

Other than finding vaccines and therapies for COVID in record time, are there other challenges the pharma industry is facing?

During this pandemic, what is easily forgotten is that apart from our responsibility to find and manufacture (at scale) COVID treatments and vaccines, we have a responsibility to those that need other vaccines and medicines as well. We cannot just ignore non-COVID patients.

We also need to carry out research and development not just for the next pandemic but also for ailments of existing patients. All this is done by investing at risk, relying on our experts to get the job done and a strong incentive system.

Currently, there is a push to uproot the incentive system, which has worked and allowed us to provide several solutions for a pandemic the likes we have not seen before. Do you know, an IP holder has to – at every stage, all the way from filing an application to the end of term of protection – defend their IP, whether it be administrative, legal or enforcement challenges.

Despite these hurdles, the industry is willing and ready. I would like to see that concern be eased by way of our actions and that science be put before politics.

How do you see the balance of IP rights and the need to get medicines to where they are required most?

Unfortunately, IP protections and access issues have got entangled in each other over the years. For a patient to get access to the right medicine at the right time, an entire sys­tem needs to work, with each stakeholder playing a different yet critical role in this system.

In fact, we are dependent on other players to get that medicine to the patient, these being those making laws and policies, procuring, deploying, selling, diagnosing and administering the medicine, to name a few.

If any step goes wrong, access will be hampered, none of which is remotely related to IP. This is why industry keeps on making the point that greater access is dependent on healthcare system strengthening.

IP, on the other hand, allows you to take the risk to go forward and explore possibilities of cures; not all will succeed, but if one does, it is a step forward in science worldwide. Secondly, it gives you a limited time period to be able to carry out further research, safety checks and recover, to some extent, the cost of the risks of investment in innovation.

COVID is a classic example: if our companies had not invested in research on Ebola, SARs and MERs, it would have taken much longer to get to where we are at today.

What do you enjoy most about your role at IFPMA?

Looking at an issue from an above-market basis while trying to find solutions for a market is thrilling. The people you engage with during this process are a delight; not all will agree with you, and that in and of itself makes you want to make your arguments more nuanced in order to address their concerns.

Within IFPMA, we have a great team, each one an expert, working across teams, looking at an issue from different angles. This is the best bit of our office dynamics.

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