By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
The worldwide pandemic has made for some depressing times.
Especially for those of us who believe governments must play a key role in safeguarding public health.
First up – a point I’ll only mention in passing, as details are unclear at the time of posting. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) appears on the verge of reversing its mask guidance for the fully vaccinated, according to the New York Times, The C.D.C. will recommend that some vaccinated people wear masks indoors again.
This new guidance would reverse one of the many misguided government decisions made since the start of the pandemic: dangling the shiny penny of being able to go maskless as a bribe to the vaccine hesitant to induce them to get jabbed. Look how well that worked out! The premature decision to allow people to go mask-free has undoubtedly increased the number of COVID-19 infections and deaths among both vaccinated and unvaccinated alike, since it was announced in May.
That brings me to what I really want to discuss: the focus throughout the pandemic on protecting intellectual property rights – and profits – rather than hunkering down to supply effective treatments and vaccines to everyone in the world as quickly as possible. The powers that be decided to bet the farm on a vaccine strategy rather than on treatments. So, in the interest of keeping this post to a manageable length, vaccines will be the topic du jour.
It’s not always been the case that inventors of medical advances promoted profit over public health. Both Jonas Salk and Alfred Sabin didn’t patent their respective polio vaccines. In that regard, they followed a precedent set by the inventor of insulin in 1923, Frederick Banting, who declined to put his name on the patent, as he believed it to be unethical for a doctor to profit from such a life-saving discovery. Banting’s co-inventors, James Collip and Charles Best, sold the insulin patent to the University of Toronto for $1, so that anyone who needed the new miracle medication could afford it, according to a 2019 Vox article, The absurdly high cost of insulin, explained).
Would that Big Pharma – and other esteemed elites – I’m looking at you, Bill Gates – were now so public spirited. Not only did they seek to profit, but they have blocked initiatives to distribute remedies widely, cheaply, and rapidly.
Last year, India and South Africa proposed a patent waiver for coronavirus vaccines at the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The U.S., along with Canada, Germany, and the UK, opposed this measure , until the Biden administration reversed course in May and came out in support of waiving coronavirus patents..
But U.S. support alone hasn’t led to any shift in WTO policy. Meanwhile, people continue to die. Millions, as matter of fact, since the waiver proposal was made nine months ago. From Common Dreams, 3 Million People Have Died of Covid Since Rich Nations Began Obstructing Vaccine Patent Waiver:
More than three million people across the globe have died of Covid-19 in the roughly nine months since India and South Africa first proposed a temporary patent waiver for coronavirus vaccines, a popular measure that Germany, the United Kingdom, Canada, and other rich countries have blocked.
According to an analysis released Tuesday morning by the U.K.-based advocacy group Global Justice Now, 3.08 million people have succumbed to the coronavirus since members of the World Trade Organization began considering the patent waiver in October, when the pandemic death toll stood at just over a million. Earlier this month, the global death toll surpassed four million.
More than 100 WTO member countries—including the United States—have backed the patent waiver, along with hundreds of civil society organizations, Nobel Prize-winning economists, intellectual property scholars, and the head of the World Health Organization.
But because the WTO operates by consensus, several powerful rich countries have been able to thwart the patent waiver push, leaving pharmaceutical companies in control of vaccine manufacturing even as it has become abundantly clear that current production levels are not sufficient to meet global needs.
“Millions have died while the governments of rich countries have been bickering over monopoly rights for Covid-19 vaccines,” said Nick Dearden, the director of Global Justice Now. “Every one of those deaths is a mark of shame for the governments of countries like the U.K. and Germany who have protected patents over human lives.”
The WTO’s General Council meets in Geneva today and tomorrow and will discuss the patent waiver issue. But without a breakthrough soon, no waiver may be forthcoming until the WTO breaks for vacation in August. Meaning that the measure will be stymied until October at least. Per Common Dreams:
Negotiators are asking for more time to hammer out a potential intellectual property agreement as the WTO is set to break for vacation in the month of August. The WTO’s TRIPS Council—the body tasked with monitoring global intellectual property rules—is not set to formally meet again until mid-October, a nearly three-month gap in the talks as the Delta variant continues to wreak havoc in undervaccinated regions.
Global Justice Now noted that nearly a million people have died of Covid-19 over the past three months.
“It beggars belief that governments could delay progress for another three months,” said Dearden. “The virus is ravaging the world’s poorest while rich governments buy booster shots and vaccinate low-risk groups. Extreme vaccine inequality will be never-ending unless we remove the corporate monopolies which are preventing the world from ramping up production.”
Common Dreams turned to noted trade expert Lori Wallach, who lambasted the WTO’s continued delay:
Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch division, blasted the WTO for preparing to shut down for six weeks of vacation while “monopoly protections for pharmaceutical corporations remain an obstacle to scaling up the production of vaccines, tests, and treatments needed to beat Covid.”
“The Delta variant is burning a murderous path through a world where most people are literally dying for a vaccine but there simply is no supply,” Wallach said in a statement Tuesday. “Until the WTO intellectual property barriers are waived, and governments force technology transfer and fund major new manufacturing capacity so the needed vaccines are made to inoculate the world, it will be one variant after another getting hatched.”
U.S. Tries to Cajole Producers to Agree Low-Cost Offshore Manufacturing Hubs
Meanwhile, the U.S. is moving on another front, as reported in the FT, US vaccine diplomat urges producers to back low-cost jab hubs abroad:
Joe Biden’s top vaccine diplomat has urged Covid-19 vaccine makers in the US to support the development of low-cost manufacturing hubs overseas to boost the production of cheaper jabs for developing countries.
Gayle Smith, head of global Covid-19 response at the US state department, told the Financial Times she wanted US vaccine makers — which include Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson — to share technological expertise with international rivals that can make the vaccines at a lower price point.
“We need to increase the capacity of regions to produce more of the vaccines than they consume,” Smith told the Financial Times. “Then they can start exporting to countries around them.”
Her comments follow criticism that the US is not doing enough to boost supplies in developing countries struggling to contain the spread of the Delta coronavirus variant, despite having secured more doses than it needs to vaccinate the entire American adult population.
Smith said: “All companies want to hold on to their innovation. It is our hope that, particularly in the realm of public health, [they] will see the wisdom of making sure that there is greater accessibility and affordability.”
In addition to backing the temporary WTO patent vaccine waiver, the Biden administration has vowed to buy 500 million vaccine doses to donate to poorer countries. Advisers are also recommending setting up a web of low-cost, offshore factories that could manufacture billions of vaccine doses per year. The U.S.government’s International Development Finance Corporation has so far pledged $2 billion to vaccine makers in developing countries as incentives for deals. Agreements are already in place with companies in India, Senegal, and South Africa. Yet this far these agreements have been for off-shore manufacturers to fill and finish vaccine vials rather than make injections from scratch, according to the FT.
What Must Be Done
Buried at the end of the FT piece is a fact that left my utterly gobsmacked.
The US government still owns one of the main patents underpinning the Moderna vaccine, but has not yet charged the company a royalty for using it. Barney Graham, one of the US government scientists who helped develop that vaccine, told the FT earlier this year the patent gave the government “leverage” over Moderna.
Jerri-Lynn here. I’ll say. Leverage indeed!
Back to the FT.
Tom Frieden, the former director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is advising the Biden administration on its global vaccine hub strategy. He told the FT: “For a proper global vaccine strategy, we really need Moderna or Pfizer to play. Moderna is a better candidate, because the US taxpayer has bought and paid for that technology.”
I cannot believe this. It seems the U.S. is merely “urging” Moderna, to ramp up vaccine production with global partners, as quickly and cheaply as possible, Rather than as anyone with any sense of urgency about what response this pandemic warrants would do: direct the company, full speed ahead, damn the torpedoes, to manufacture what are surely our life-saving vaccines, as taxpayers “bought and paid for that technology.”
I’m sure, with a sufficient sense of what’s at stake, J & J, Pfizer, and any other potential vaccine makers lurking in the background- which do or hope to supply vaccines to the U.S. market – might also be brought around to do what must be done.
I should also mention that I don’t see this U.S. hub promotion policy as a substitute for the more general WTO patent waiver. It’s been many years since I studied U.S. trade policy seriously, and in fact spent a year in Geneva on a fellowship researching and writing just after the launch of the Uruguay Round of GATT negotiations in 1986-87. I know in general the devil is in the details of all trade pacts and I’m wary that this policy might perhaps be a stalking horse, intended to deflect a more general patent waiver from being adopted. I hope my suspicions in that respect are unwarranted.
At any rate. what must be done is to transfer vaccine technology quickly to places where vaccines can be made and deployed more widely. So that lives may be saved and the pandemic brought under a measure of control. That must be done worldwide.
As a final aside, I’ll not be impressed by any whispering campaign raising putative offshore quality control issues – especially in light of this June New York Times report of a Baltimore factory spoiling 75 million doses of a Johnson & Johnson vaccine (see F.D.A. details failures at a Baltimore plant that led to unusable vaccine doses.)
Where do you think most vaccines are made these days anyway? After all, the Serum Institute of India remains the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer and lis ocated in the world’s largest vaccine manufacturing country, India.