President Biden is coming under mounting pressure at home and abroad to reverse a Trump-era policy and publicly support a temporary waiver on international patent rights for COVID vaccines and treatments that would allow countries around the world to manufacture lifesaving doses domestically.
Big Pharma opposes the trade protections waiver, but global health advocates, congressional Democrats and leaders across the world say the waiver is necessary address massive inequities in vaccine distribution, prevent needless suffering and bring the global pandemic to an end. Now they are asking Biden to put people over corporate profits and pick a side.
“If the question is more profit for the drug companies, or saving God knows how many lives, then the answer is pretty simple,” Sen. Bernie Sanders told reporters during a press conference on Friday.
COVID has already claimed more than 3 million lives globally.
On Friday, Sanders and other leading Democrats joined more than a dozen public health, labor and faith organizations in delivering a petition with two million signatures to Biden demanding the U.S. drop its opposition to the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights or TRIPS waiver at the World Trade Organization. Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Tammie Baldwin and seven other Democratic senators sent a letter urging Biden to support the TRIPS waiver earlier this month.
The WTO is meeting on May 5 to again consider the waiver, which was introduced by India and South Africa back in October and is supported by over 100 countries, according to Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. The temporary waiver would loosen the grip that a handful of drug companies have on proprietary technology and know-how needed to scale-up vaccine manufacturing globally by protecting vaccine makers supporting lower-income countries from patent lawsuits for the remainder of the pandemic.
Currently, a small number of high- and middle-income nations — including the U.S., U.K., the European Union, India and China — account for the majority of vaccine doses administered so far, according to the Global Health Innovation Center at Duke University. On April 9, the United Nations warned that richer countries had administered 87 percent of the 700 million shots provided globally while only 0.2 percent had been administered in low-income countries.
Pauline Muchina, an advocate for the Africa region at the American Friends Service Committee, said most nations without COVID-19 vaccines are home to people of color.
“Black lives matter globally,” Muchina said. “President Biden, please help end vaccine apartheid.”
The COVID-19 virus continues to spread and mutate, with massive outbreaks in India and Brazil raising fears that without a global, coordinated effort to quickly manufacture vaccines in poorer countries, the pandemic will continue to claim untold numbers of lives while threatening economic recovery. The manufacturing capacity is out there, advocates say, but other countries need access to proprietary production technology and the vaccine “recipe” in order to develop that capacity.
While waiver proponents applauded efforts by Biden and the pharmaceutical industry to ramp up vaccination in the U.S., they warn that vaccine-resistant virus variants could develop across the world if vaccines are not available in poorer countries. These mutations could threaten all the progress the U.S. has made at home — and threaten countless lives around the world.
Abby Maxman, president of Oxfam America, said the U.S. has invested billions of taxpayer dollars into vaccine development, but the world remains at the mercy of a handful of private companies that control where the vaccine is produced and distributed.
“One in four citizens of rich countries have been vaccinated, and just 1 in 500 in poorer countries have done so, and this inequality is a moral, public health and economic disaster that threatens to prolong this pandemic around the world,” Maxman said.
The Trump administration, the United Kingdom and a handful of other wealthy WTO countries that invested heavily in vaccine development have blocked the global trade forum from even negotiating the language of the proposed waiver. Biden hasn’t changed this stance, but now, members of his own party are urging him to reverse course. Dozens of Democrats in Congress have signed letters supporting the waiver, according to Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, who is leading the effort in the House.
Schakowsky said support is also growing within the Biden administration, and if the U.S. takes a stand, the handful of other wealthy nations blocking the waiver would likely follow suit.
“So, the momentum is really growing both inside and outside of the [administration] to take action, and you don’t have to go beyond self-interest to see how sensible it would be for us to act,” Schakowsky said during the press conference with Sanders, adding that the progress the U.S. has made could be erased if the virus is allowed to spread in the developing world.
Under President Donald Trump, the U.S. embraced “vaccine nationalism,” funneling billions of public dollars to private pharmaceutical companies while shunning international cooperation. Biden is working to restore U.S. leadership on the global stage and has pledged $4 billion over the next three years for COVAX, an international effort to aims to provide 2 billion vaccine doses this year, but Democrats and waiver proponents argue COVAX alone is inadequate.
Analysis based on industry data estimates that manufacturers could produce 12 billion by the end of this year, although researchers caution that the data is murky and this figure is based on the industry’s optimistic assumptions. Assuming that most vaccines distributed this year will be the type that require two doses, experts say 11 billion vaccine doses are needed to cover 70 percent of the world’s population — the threshold that some experts say necessary to approach herd immunity. That threshold could be met if manufacturers meet their goals and vaccines are distributed equitably, but those are two “big ifs,” according to the analysts at Duke.
The analysts say there are other big ifs as well. For example, it remains unclear whether emerging COVID variants will require a new generation of vaccines, and if booster shots of current vaccines will be needed after immunity wears off. Questions remain about vaccine distribution, and under current projections, it could take more than two or more years for vaccines to reach people in low-income countries.
“Few in developing countries are projected to have access to vaccines this year, and if current trends continue, they may not have access until 2024,” said Tulika Singh, and organizer with Right to Health Action and Ph.D. candidate in virology whose grandmother died of COVID in India.
The pharmaceutical industry and some Republicans argue that intellectual property protections are helping to facilitate a global vaccine rollout, but proponents of the waiver say the industry is primarily concerned with protecting profits. Big Pharma has paid out $26 billion in dividends to shareholders during the pandemic, enough money to vaccinate everyone living in Africa.
“We can’t let the pursuit of private profit trump global health,” Maxman said.
Maxman and other advocates said the few companies with monopoly rights on vaccine “recipes” are creating “artificial scarcity” in order to boost profits. If intellectual property protections are temporarily lifted, then manufacturers in large, middle-income countries such as India and South Africa can create generic and biosimilar vaccines for much of the developing world. Maxman hopes for a “people’s vaccine” that can be produced patent-free worldwide.
A similar scenario played out during the height of the AIDS epidemic, when TRIPS protections were lifted on anti-viral therapies that were credited with saving millions of lives. Muchina said Biden needs to ask himself whether he will stand with the majority of Americans and countries across the globe in support of the waiver, or with Big Pharma.
“My mom who is over 90 years old in Kenya can’t access the vaccine, because someone is being selfish with the knowledge that is needed to save humanity,” Muchina said.