Yves here. I wish I could be enthusiastic about Biden saying he would support a waiver of Big Pharma Covid vaccine patents. After all, we’ve been pumping for this measure for some time, albeit mainly through the posts of Jomo Kwame Sundaram, who has written that the much of the Global South would not get vaccines until 2023 on the current schedule, and even then, in many cases, at higher prices than the Global North.
However, if you look at various press stories on this plan, you’ll see two things. One is the abject falsehood that these supposedly backwards countries would have trouble making the vaccines, especially the novel (in terms of large scale use in humans) mRNA vaccines. Microbiology prof KLG debunked that via e-mail:
It is complete and utter bullshit that, off the top of my head, India, Indonesia, possibly Singapore, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, South Africa, Canada, Australia, Japan, Korea, China, New Zealand, Mexico, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Cuba cannot manufacture these vaccines. There are undoubtedly other countries that can do it, too. This is routine molecular biology and pharmaceutical manufacture, albeit on a large scale, not the biological equivalent of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. All any of these people need are the instructions and help with components. Would it take a serious effort on their part? No more than here and Europe.
The second issue is that getting the waivers looks like it will take an ungodly amount of time and may not happen. I wonder if there was a more expeditious US-only route, like requiring vaccine makers to produce a certain number at cost under the War Production Act….or at least as an interim measure while the WTO process drags on? From the Wall Street Journal:
Overriding objections from the pharmaceutical industry, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai said the U.S. would support a proposal working its way through the World Trade Organization. Such a policy would waive the IP rights of vaccine makers to potentially enable companies in developing countries and others to manufacture their own versions of Covid-19 vaccines….
Pharmaceutical companies, however, oppose it, saying the waiver won’t provide the short-term results proponents think it will, partly because of the challenge of setting up complex new production facilities to manufacture the vaccines…..
Ms. Tai also warned that the talks at the WTO to approve a waiver policy will take time, given the consensus-based nature of the group, but that the U.S. will actively participate in negotiations…
The current WTO agreement—the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, or TRIPS—was introduced in 1995 upon the birth of the WTO itself, providing patent protection to technological innovations, including drugs and vaccines.
Support by the U.S. for the temporary waiver doesn’t mean it will be approved at the WTO, an organization that makes decisions by consensus among members. The European Union, the U.K., Switzerland, Japan and Brazil are among the countries that opposed the original proposal offered by South Africa and India in October.
In fact, cynically I wonder if the US hasn’t already counted noses at the WTO, knows the votes aren’t there, and will quietly reassure big drugmakers privately that this was all a gesture that the Administration knew was destined to fail.
By Jake Johnson, staff writer at Common Dreams. Originally published at Common Dreams
Stocks of major pharmaceutical corporations plummeted Wednesday after the Biden administration announced its support for a coronavirus vaccine patent waiver, a measure that would free vaccine recipes from Big Pharma’s stranglehold and help enable generic manufacturers to ramp up global production.
As CNBC reported, shares in Pfizer, BioNTech, Novavax, and Moderna fell to “session lows” after the Biden White House endorsed the waiver—a potentially seismic move that came after weeks of tireless campaigning by progressive lawmakers and advocacy groups.
Canada, European Union member nations, the United Kingdom, and other wealthy countries remain opposed to the waiver, leaving the chances of consensus approval at the World Trade Organization highly uncertain.
Nevertheless, the Biden administration’s support for the waiver spooked investors and infuriated the pharmaceutical industry, which has been lobbying hard against the proposal in an effort to preserve its immensely profitable monopoly control over vaccine production.
“Cry no tears for these death profiteers,” environmentalist and author Naomi Klein tweeted in response to a CNBCgraphic showing the major sell-off of pharma shares on Wednesday.
— CNBC Now (@CNBCnow) May 5, 2021
“It’s almost as if the financial interests of the pharmaceutical industry are diametrically opposed to the health and well-being of the planet,” added consumer watchdog Public Citizen, part of a broad coalition of global civil society groups that has been pushing U.S. President Joe Biden and other world leaders to back the patent waiver for months.
The Financial Times reported Thursday morning that the Biden administration’s decision to back the temporary intellectual property waiver—which South Africa and India first introduced at the WTO in October—”prompted instant outrage in the pharmaceutical sector.”
“Shares in the big makers of Covid-19 vaccines were hit by the announcement,” FT noted. “Frankfurt-listed shares in BioNTech lost 14 percent on Thursday. Moderna and Novavax closed down by between 3 percent and 6 percent in New York the day before.”
Warren Gunnels, staff director for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), said Wednesday that “after taxpayers paid Pfizer, BioNTech, Novavax, and Moderna $13.5 billion for Covid-19 vaccines, seven executives at these firms became billionaires and are now worth $17.2 billion.”
“No one should have gotten wealthy off of these vaccines,” Gunnels added. “They belong to the people, not billionaires.”
Allowing a handful of pharmaceutical companies to dictate global supply of life-saving coronavirus vaccines has been disastrous for much of the developing world, which has struggled to obtain and administer doses after profit-seeking drugmakers sold most of their early production to wealthy countries.
Now, as cities in rich nations accelerate their reopenings amid stagnant or falling case counts, skyrocketing infections in developing countries such as India, Brazil, and Thailand are pushing global case counts to a new peak, intensifying calls for sweeping action to boost vaccine production and distribution.
While insufficient to solve global production shortages on its own, India and South Africa’s patent waiver would lift a key legal barrier that’s preventing manufacturers around the world from copying existing vaccine recipes and mass-producing generic versions.
“In the many months since this waiver was first proposed, we could have produced many hundreds of millions more vaccines,” Nick Dearden, director of the London-based advocacy group Global Justice Now, said in a statement Wednesday. “Let’s get moving.”