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Biden, Do the Right Thing and Release the Vaccines From Pharma’s Grip

As members of the World Trade Organization meet
Friday afternoon, countless residents of the United States, United Kingdom, the
European Union, and other wealthy regions will be getting their
second Covid-19 vaccine, as Covid cases in these places decline. Thousands in
India, where 60
percent of the world’s vaccines are made, will be dying.Moving into the deadliest phase of the coronavirus pandemic,
support for temporarily waiving intellectual property rights for Covid-19
vaccines and related products has been swelling. Former world
leaders, Nobel laureates, medical professionals, legislators, faith
leaders, and more than 100 countries have given public support for the
initiative led by South Africa and India at the WTO, whose Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, or TRIPS, council
is meeting Friday to discuss Covid-19. Millions of people, in countries both
supporting and blocking the waiver, have mobilized in support
of the initiative, affirming that no one is safe until everyone is safe. Vaccine inequality has been the biggest failing of the global
pandemic response. At the beginning of the pandemic,
world leaders lined up to commit to cooperation
and solidarity, but this rhetoric quickly unraveled as governments prioritized national
efforts—hoarding more vaccines than they need and initiating export
controls to keep goods within their territories. Given
domestic pressures to get “back to normal,” this is somewhat understandable, but
there is no such thing as a competitive advantage in a global pandemic, and now the same countries that cornered
the vaccine market for their own populations are blocking an initiative to
unleash production.  The logic behind calls for the waiver is clear: As long as we do
not take steps to rapidly increase vaccine production, we will continue to play
catchup with a virus that has demonstrated
its capacity to mutate quickly into more aggressive and resistant
strains. Producing vaccines to scale, quickly and without affordability
barriers, is the only solution. The intellectual property regime is a huge
barrier to this task, preventing manufacturing outside the licensing agreements
overseen by the owners of the Covid-19 vaccine patents. The patents, and the
multilateral agreements enforcing them, protect the profits of pharmaceutical
giants at the expense of a global effort to end the pandemic: While one
in four citizens of rich nations have had a vaccine, just one
in 500 people in poorer countries have. That’s a moral crisis. And it’s also
an epidemiological one.Since the proposal to temporarily
waive certain provisions of the TRIPS Agreement was first presented to the TRIPS
Council at the WTO last October, pharmaceutical companies and the countries
blocking the waiver—the U.S., the U.K., the EU, Switzerland, Japan, Norway,
Brazil, Singapore, and Australia—have offered a series of questionable
justifications for their actions that allow the waiver to languish in diplomatic
procedure while the pandemic rages on.  We have
been told that production bottlenecks weren’t about intellectual property restrictions and
that manufacturing capacity was maxed out. This has been proven
wrong, as manufacturing facilities that could make hundreds of millions
of doses on short notice have stated
publicly that they are unable to do so without the blueprints and technical
know-how. We have
been told that a waiver would undermine responses to future pandemics by
compromising the innovation incentive that patents offer. This, too, has shown to
be bogus, since existing vaccines relied on public backing to get their
operations off the ground—indeed, the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine was around 97 to 99 percent funded by public money. As others have pointed out, much of the industry’s innovation
has been predicated on decades of public support
for research and development. “Protecting” these patents means protecting
companies’ ability to profit off research that taxpayers funded—another story
of socializing risk and privatizing profits. We have also been told by patent defenders (Bill Gates, for
example) that expanding vaccine manufacturing by waiving patents is impossible because manufacturers in poorer countries aren’t
careful enough or safe enough—even though some are already integrated into Covid-19
vaccine supply chains—and that building or upgrading manufacturing facilities
could take too long. But counterexamples abound: At the start of the pandemic,
the U.K. had only two plants making seasonal flu jabs and a Japanese encephalitis
vaccine. With the help of public investment, it now has four facilities making Covid-19
vaccines with another two on track to be ready by the end of 2021. America’s own effort was able to scale up 23 manufacturing facilities within six months.
Blocking countries have
argued that existing flexibilities in the WTO rules will be enough for
poorer countries to make their own versions. It’s a justification that doesn’t
make much sense. (Why block the waiver if the waiver won’t change anything?) But
it’s also undercut by the fact that the pharmaceutical industry is already lobbying for countries pursuing these measures
to face punitive sanctions—a tactic the U.S. has been only too willing to
pursue in the past. Now, in an act of desperation, the pharmaceutical giants are saying
that protecting vaccine patents is a matter
of security. On Sunday, the Financial Times reported that companies
have “warned” White House officials in private meetings that waiving patent
protections would give Chinese and Russian scientists access to technologies
that could help them beat cancer and heart problems—as if that’s a bad thing.
But from the corporate perspective, it is: Sharing these recipes means others
might advance science, undercutting companies’ monopoly position. Perhaps the saddest thing of all is that the states blocking the
waiver don’t even own the patents: They enabled their development with public
investment but have allowed private companies to retain all the rights while
running roughshod over public health priorities. So why are richer governments
going along with it? Are they betting—against
the science—that ongoing Covid outbreaks won’t generate mutations that
render existing vaccines useless? Do they believe that their border control
will do the work of keeping the unvaccinated out—a profoundly racist prospect?
Or are they so averse to opening up the intellectual property rights can of
worms that they think it’s worth the millions who may die as a result?Geopolitical vaccine games, in reality, are in nobody’s interest
but the people who use their ownership of patents to extract rents, much like a
slum landlord who buys up excess property during a crash and then extorts
outsize profits from tenants. The countries now blocking the TRIPS waiver host
the companies that have made the most from intellectual property receipts since 1997, when the
TRIPS Agreement was introduced. These companies want to block potential
competitors from arising in other regions of the world, and they have convinced
the governments of the countries that host them to back this shortsighted
strategy at the cost of countless lives. If this sounds uncomfortably
neocolonial in its overtones, that’s because it is.The Biden administration claims to want to rebuild faith in
democracy and multilateralism. That stated goal is meaningless if the White
House cannot get behind an initiative backed by the majority of countries in
the world to challenge a pharmaceutical industry that spends around double what any other sector spends on lobbying in the U.S.Pharmaceutical companies are projected
to make nearly $40 billion in sales from Covid-19 vaccines in
2021. Pfizer has been accused of “bullying” Latin American governments in
negotiations for vaccines, demanding that they put up sovereign assets as guarantees against any civil suits
people who experience bad side effects might file. Poorer countries have
been charged two to three times what wealthier countries are paying for the
Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. The People’s
Vaccine Alliance calculates that Pfizer,
Johnson & Johnson, and AstraZeneca have paid out $26 billion in dividends
and stock buybacks to their shareholders in the past 12 months—enough to pay to
vaccinate at least 1.3 billion people, the equivalent of the population of
Africa. And now this industry is throwing everything it has into lobbying Biden and
other leaders to block the waiver.The development of multiple viable vaccines to eradicate the
Covid-19 pandemic in less than a year was an incredible scientific achievement
that brought hope to the billions of people whose lives have been upended by
the pandemic. Supporting the waiver would be an unprecedented achievement for a
renewed multilateralism that puts people before profits. It would also be popular
among citizens of blocking regions: Most people across the U.S., France,
Germany, and the U.K.
think that governments should ensure vaccine science and know-how is shared
with manufacturers around the world rather than remaining the exclusive
property of a handful of pharmaceutical giants. During his presidential campaign, Biden committed to sharing Covid-19 vaccine technologies and ensuring
patents do not stand in the way of other countries accessing life-saving
vaccines if he was elected, calling it “the only humane thing in the
world to do.” It is not too late to stay true to this promise and throw U.S.
weight at the WTO behind a people’s vaccine.
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