Demonstrators Call on Biden to Show Leadership on Vaccine Patent Waivers

Public health campaigners rallied outside the U.S. Embassy in South Africa on Tuesday to criticize the Biden administration’s passivity in ongoing negotiations over a patent waiver for coronavirus vaccines, a proposal that remains deadlocked at the World Trade Organization more than five months after the White House endorsed it.

“The U.S. made a big, bold decision to support this groundbreaking TRIPS waiver, but is now largely absent from the global effort to make it a reality,” said Avril Benoît, executive director of Doctors Without Borders USA, which took part in Tuesday’s demonstration. “This is a historic opportunity, and the U.S. must play a leadership role.”

“While the U.S. now has plenty of tools to tackle Covid-19, people in many low- and middle-income countries are still suffering and dying without vaccines, tests, or treatments,” Benoît added. “We don’t have time to waste. The U.S. must deliver on its promise and ensure that the TRIPS waiver is adopted.”

Demonstrators also rallied outside the embassies of Belgium and the Netherlands in Tshwane, South Africa to demand that the two wealthy European nations stop obstructing the patent waiver.

“Even though France, Greece, Italy, and Spain have already come out to support the waiver, another handful of governments in the E.U. with strong pharmaceutical corporation ties is choosing to put shareholder interests over the lives of people across the globe,” Candice Sehoma, South Africa advocacy officer for Doctors Without Borders’ Access Campaign, said in a statement Tuesday. “We are calling on supportive E.U. countries to show real leadership and convince their neighbors to do the right thing.”

First proposed by India and South Africa last October, the patent waiver has since been stuck in largely fruitless negotiations at the WTO despite the measure’s broad support from member nations, the head of the World Health Organization, civil society groups, intellectual property (IP) experts, and others. The waiver, which aims to temporarily suspend IP rules that are preventing manufacturers across the globe from producing generic vaccines, has drawn opposition from rich European countries and the pharmaceutical industry.

The WTO operates by consensus, meaning a single objecting nation can tank a proposal that supporters say is crucial to ramp up vaccine production and end the pandemic.

In the year that has passed since India and South Africa unveiled their waiver proposal, more than 3.5 million people worldwide have died of Covid-19 and poor nations — forced to rely on trickles of charity from rich countries — have been denied adequate access to vaccines. Just 2.5% of people in low-income countries have received at least one coronavirus vaccine dose, according to Our World in Data.

“It is crystal clear that unless legal tools like the TRIPS waiver are adopted, many countries will continue to be at the mercy of patent-holding corporations that have the say over who gets to produce, who gets to buy, and at what price, while health ministries are already reeling from the rising costs of tackling Covid-19,” said Felipe Carvalho, Doctors Without Borders’ Access Campaign coordinator in Brazil. “We say to the remaining blocking governments: the eyes of the world are really just on you now — so you should think about what side of history you want to be on when the books on this pandemic are written.”

While the Biden administration expressed support for the patent waiver in May, activists have accused the White House of taking a backseat during recent negotiations over the waiver — allowing U.S. allies to stonewall the proposal. In These Times reported last month that documents from a recent WTO TRIPS council meeting, which was closed to the press, show that the Biden administration is “dragging its feet” at the talks.

Following the latest TRIPS Council gathering earlier this month, the India-based business publication MoneyControl reported that “there remains almost no hope of the global vaccine waiver getting clearance till December, if at all.”

One unnamed senior trade negotiator told the outlet that the European nations opposed to the waiver “have been emboldened by a noncommittal United States, despite the support of almost all WTO member nations.”

The WTO TRIPS Council is set to convene again on Wednesday ahead of a key ministerial meeting at the end of November, a gathering that advocates view as a pivotal opportunity for world leaders to approve the patent waiver.

In the absence of a temporary international waiver, public health advocates are calling on the Biden administration to use the U.S. government’s ownership of a crucial patent to force Moderna and other pharmaceutical giants to share their vaccine recipes with the rest of the world. Thus far, profit-seeking drug companies have refused to voluntarily participate in technology-transfer initiatives and other steps aimed at empowering manufacturers in poor nations to produce their own vaccines.

On Monday, as Common Dreams reported, Moderna co-founder and chairman Noubar Afeyan reiterated that the U.S.-based corporation has no intention of making its vaccine recipe available to qualified manufacturers around the world, even after the company received billions of dollars in public funding to develop its vaccine. Moderna’s vaccine profits helped make Afeyan a billionaire and landed him on the new Forbes 400 list of the richest people in the U.S.

“It’s not news that a pharmaceutical company puts profits first. That is what companies do,” tweeted Nature reporter Amy Maxmen. “The onus is on the U.S. government to put lives over profits, particularly when they give companies massive handouts.”