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Over 100 Countries Push to Loosen Rules on Vaccine Patents as US Blocks the Way

Intellectual property rules give pharmaceutical companies monopolistic control over vaccines they develop.

As the pandemic’s death toll nears 2.5 million, stringent rules around intellectual property rights could be preventing much of the world from obtaining COVID-19 vaccines. Over 45 million people in the United States have received at least one dose of a vaccine, according to the United Nations, while 130 other countries have not received any vaccines at all, leading to what some describe as “vaccine apartheid.” At the World Trade Organization, South Africa and India are leading a push by over 100 nations to waive intellectual property rules that give pharmaceutical companies monopolistic control over vaccines they develop, even when the vaccines are developed largely with public funds, in order to speed up distribution of the life-saving medicines — but the U.S. has been a key impediment to loosening those restrictions. “The proposal really seeks to ensure that everyone has access,” says Mustaqeem De Gama, a member of the South African WTO delegation. “We should enable more producers to produce, to scale, and to ensure that all of us are safe in the shortest possible time.” We also speak with Congressmember Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, who supports the WTO waiver. “We know that these intellectual property rights really do put profit over people all over the world,” she says.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As the global COVID death toll nears two-and-a-half million, half a million of those deaths here in the United States, we begin today’s show looking at how intellectual property rights are preventing much of the world from obtaining COVID vaccines. In the United States, over 45 million people have received at least their first dose of a vaccine. But across much of the world, COVID vaccines will not be available for months, if not years. The United Nations recently warned 130 countries have not received any vaccines at all, leading to what some have described as a vaccine apartheid system.

South Africa and India are heading a push by over 100 nations for the World Trade Organization to waive intellectual property rules that give pharmaceutical companies monopolistic control over vaccines they developed, even when those vaccines are developed largely with public funds. Last fall, the Trump administration blocked a temporary waiver on the rules, known as TRIPS — that’s the WTO’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights. The Biden administration is now facing increasing pressure from Public Citizen and other groups to reverse the U.S. position ahead of a key meeting on Monday. Lori Wallach is director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch.

LORI WALLACH: Right now, thanks to rules like in the World Trade Organization’s Trade-Related Intellectual Property Agreement, countries all over the world are required — despite having invested hundreds of billions in creating the vaccines, they’re required to give monopoly protections, under the WTO rules, to the pharmaceutical companies, who then control how much and where the needed medicines are produced. … In order to be able to gear up, we need a broad waiver that covers that whole web of intellectual property rights that Big Pharma right now has that’s constricting the ability of countries around the world to make these meds.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined right now by two guests. Here in the United States, Democratic Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky represents the 9th District of Illinois. She’s also senior chief deputy whip and chair of the Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee. And Mustaqeem De Gama is with us from Geneva. He’s the counselor at the South African Permanent Mission to the World Trade Organization. He helped draft a proposal, co-sponsored by India and South Africa, calling for the WTO to suspend intellectual property rights related to COVID-19.

Mustaqeem De Gama, let’s begin with you. If you can explain to a global audience exactly what is happening? If nothing else, this pandemic has told us, has taught us, if one person is sick somewhere, we are all threatened. What exactly — especially for an audience in the United States who hardly even knows that the World Trade Organization exists — are you saying will make an enormous difference in protecting the population of the planet?

MUSTAQEEM DE GAMA: Good morning. And good morning to all viewers.

I think the point you make is very, very important. We have seen the interconnectedness of the world, and certainly COVID-19 has brought this to a fore. This proposal essentially proposes that we waive certain forms of intellectual property rights to ensure an increase of production. And we’ve seen large-scale shortages of vaccines, not because of any other reason, but because of the inappropriate use of intellectual property rights. And so, from that perspective, the proposal really seeks to ensure that everyone has access, as you clearly also point out that, on a global scale, we see the variants of the virus now impacting the efficacy of vaccines that already have been produced. And so, from this perspective, it makes a lot of sense to have everyone vaccinated at the earliest point in time.

And so, the waiver makes the argument that we should enable more producers to produce, to scale, and to ensure that all of us are safe in the shortest possible time. If we do not have access to a vaccine, the inequality that we see in the world today will continue. I emphasized a few days ago that only 10 countries are responsible for 75% of all vaccines that have been administered to date. And this means that a good 130 countries have not yet received vaccines at this point in time and may not receive vaccines for years to come.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Mustaqeem, if you could also comment on the fact that AstraZeneca, for example, which was made in conjunction with the University of Oxford, AstraZeneca has licensed the Serum Institute of India to both produce and manufacture this vaccine? How did AstraZeneca do that? Is it entirely up to individual companies to make the decision about whether they license or not, and to whom they license? Was a waiver required for AstraZeneca to do this?

MUSTAQEEM DE GAMA: Absolutely no. I think the licensing of AstraZeneca to the Serum Institute is what is called a voluntary license, so the waiver was not required to do this. But the problem with these types of arrangements, firstly, is that they’re very secretive. Secondly, there are contractual terms that limit the producer, both in terms of volume and also geographic distribution of what is being produced. So, the Serum Institute is one example.

Johnson & Johnson has also licensed their vaccine to a company in South Africa. Once again, we know that from this particular contract, only 9% of what that company produces will be distributed in South Africa. The rest will go somewhere else. So, whereas voluntary licenses would be a good idea, it is limited in scope, and what is required to address COVID-19 cannot be addressed purely through voluntary licenses.

So, the clear bottom line here is that we need a massive scale-up, and the rights that are embedded in these voluntary licenses enable companies to say how much is produced, for whom they are produced, and at what price. And ultimately, if we have a limitation in the number of vaccines that are produced, we know that this has an impact on the price. It has an impact on scarcity. And what we do see in the market now is that even poor countries are required to pay much more for these vaccines, even though these vaccines would have been developed with a large amount of public funding.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And does this waiver apply only to vaccines that were developed in Europe and here — in other words, to Pfizer and Moderna — or also to vaccines that have been developed elsewhere, the two vaccines from China, as well as Sputnik V from Russia?

MUSTAQEEM DE GAMA: This is a measure that will apply everywhere, so all WTO members would be able to benefit and invoke the flexibility that is granted. So, any vaccine that could be accessible could be subject to this particular waiver. And this is in line with the principle of nondiscrimination, that we are not only targeting producers in particular countries.

I think the problem that has arisen is that these producers are not willing to share the technology available. And as you indicate, it’s not only applicable to vaccines. It’s applicable to a broad range of intellectual property rights, including therapeutics, for example, diagnostics. In order to track and trace the evolution of the virus, we need access to further types of technology. So, it’s not only vaccines that would be applicable here, but it would also apply to a wider range of intellectual property rights, and then, of course, products, that could be used to address COVID-19.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Jan Schakowsky, let’s talk concretely about what this all means. I mean, you have private companies like Moderna that got, what, something like a billion dollars from the United States, overall, something like two-and-a-half billion dollars for the development of the company’s vaccines from governments around the world. And then you have Pfizer, who may not have got it at the front end, but at the back end, a guarantee of massive buys by government, you know, sales of the vaccine. What exactly happens? What would — if there was a waiver to this WTO provision, would other companies and other countries be able to do?

REP. JAN SCHAKOWSKY: So, the waiver, which, by the way, is limited in time, it is narrowly focused on making sure that we address this current virus, and it would not change the rule of the WTO permanently. So, this is an important response. And what it would do would be allow countries to be able to produce their own vaccines and therapeutics and make sure that they can take care of themselves.

We know that these intellectual property rights really do put profit over people all over the world. And we know — and I have talked to, in a hearing, with these major companies, and I think emphasizing the fact that Americans are huge investors in this. We have put millions and millions of dollars into developing these vaccines and doing the research and development for these companies. But now they are saying, and they said in here — while they agree that the COVID virus anywhere threatens people everywhere, that they don’t believe that they should allow this waiver so that other countries and other companies can develop their own drugs. And —

AMY GOODMAN: So, concretely, it would mean sharing the recipe, essentially? And it would mean, you know, what are the — some companies could make the needles. Some companies could make whatever needs to be done. And this would be shared for a time. And again, as you said, billions have gone into these companies by governments. This wasn’t just developed by these companies outlaying money.

REP. JAN SCHAKOWSKY: You know, I think it’s kind of analogous to allowing various countries to produce a generic drug based on the research that has been done. It is so shortsighted. And the United States of America is not on the right side of this right now.

What we would like is, between now and Monday, for the president of the United States — and, you know, I’m certainly supporting of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris — would say that we support the waiver at the WTO. It would make all the difference in the world. I know that Nancy Pelosi, our speaker of the House, has spoken out on this issue, as well, and says that this is important for us to do for ourselves. It’s our own self-interest, as well. We don’t want to — you know, we’re spending additional billions of dollars to address tourism, to help the airlines, to be able to help our economy. All of that will be for naught, if we cannot protect ourselves against this virus because we will not help the international community. And there are hundreds of organizations — health organizations, human rights organizations, NGOs around the world — that are pleading, really, for this waiver to be approved.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Mustaqeem, could you respond to those who oppose this waiver, not on the basis of profit, but simply on the basis of the fact that they say these vaccines, in particular Pfizer and Moderna, which are very difficult to transport and store given the fact that they need to be kept in subfreezing temperatures, that the problem is not one of sharing the technology, because, in fact, even if they were to share this so-called recipe, no other country or most countries would not be able to manufacture these vaccines because they don’t have the technology and the means to make these particular vaccines? And then, also, what exactly happened with the AIDS vaccine during the — not the vaccine, but the antiretroviral drugs, during the AIDS epidemic, and how those drugs were able to be manufactured around the world, in particular, in India?

MUSTAQEEM DE GAMA: Yes, thanks. I think this is a very important point to stress, that in terms of the manufacturing capacity, we know that there are many developing countries that do have the capacity to produce vaccines. And if you actually look at the supply chains, much of the medicine consumed in the West is actually produced in developing countries. And so, from that perspective, firstly, if the recipe is shared, as you say, with developing countries, there are manufacturers that can do this. The World Health Organization, for instance, has a so-called prequalification list of vaccine producers. And a big part of these manufacturers actually come from the developing world. Even the mRNA vaccines that have been developed by Moderna, for example, can easily be produced in the developing world, because mRNA technology is not new. It’s been applied in other areas. But the current application to COVID-19 is novel, but the scientific base and the competence actually does exist in the developing world. And so, from that perspective, I think that that kind of narrative has been debunked by various organizations.

I also wanted to indicate that in terms of the second part of your question on HIV and AIDS, this is a very sad chapter in our history, and I think some of the remnants from that episode really still does chime in the current history. At that time, countries like India could produce on the basis of an amendment that was made to the TRIPS Agreement. Unlike what we are proposing — or, at least very much like what we are proposing now, a decision was taken to allow countries that do not have manufacturing capacity to import from countries that do have. And so, in theory, this mechanism is available for countries currently. However, given the scale of the pandemic, we certainly also see that it affects everyone, and so these flexibilities are not easily accessible. And so, from that point of view, when we look at the history of HIV and AIDS and we look at some of the other pandemics, it is very clear that the only way that we are going to address this is to really get and global scale-up of vaccines, whatever is needed, to ensure that we vaccinate everyone in the shortest possible time.

And you’ve indicated what the risks are. The risks are not only on the health side. It’s also on the side of poverty, poverty alleviation. A lot of people have now been exposed to insecurity. And the longer we have lockdowns continuing, the longer people will be exposed to hunger and increasing levels of poverty.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally —

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Mustaqeem, very quickly — sorry, Mustaqeem, just very quickly, before we conclude, just earlier this month, the WTO appointed the first African and the first woman to head the organization. Your sense — and she has also, of course, urged member states to make vaccines more accessible. Do you think her being in this position might make a difference?

MUSTAQEEM DE GAMA: Yes. I think, firstly, being a woman and being the first African to lead this organization, she is in touch with the sensitivities and, I think, the requirements of developing countries. So there could be no better person to lead the organization at this point in time. She’s already indicated that she’s willing to work constructively with members to ensure that we have an outcome. And I think we welcome this kind of positive energy that’s been injected into the organization, and hopefully it could also help us to reach an outcome in the shortest possible time to ensure that we save lives and that we hold our governments to account to ensure that public interest and public health issues are taken account and also are promoted above narrow interests that we see, for instance, with pharmaceutical companies.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Congressmember Jan Schakowsky, what exactly has to happen by Monday? And do you have any indication from President Biden, Vice President Harris, like you do from Nancy Pelosi, who you say has come out in support of the waiver? What happens Monday?

REP. JAN SCHAKOWSKY: Well, first of all, there’s a letter, that we’re getting sign-ons from members of Congress, to the president of the United States, a lot of contact now with the administration really emphasizing the importance of the leadership of the United States of America.

You know, we saw a quote from one of the lawyers for the pharmaceutical companies, who said they don’t do this out of the goodness of their heart; they want to do it because they get the benefits. And we’re talking about profits here. It’s really — it’s wrong in so many different ways, including putting Americans in danger.

So, we’re just going to keep the pressure on, because time is a-wasting here. If we don’t start getting more vaccines and pharmaceuticals to these developing and poor countries, we will continue to be at risk, no matter how much money we spend to crush the virus.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you both for being with us, and ask you, Congressmember Schakowsky, to stay with us, because we want to talk in our next segment about the Fight for 15 — that’s $15 an hour. And we want to thank Mustaqeem De Gama, counselor at the South African Permanent Mission to the WTO, joining us from Geneva, Switzerland. And we’ll continue to follow this story. This is Democracy Now! Back with Congressmember Schakowsky in a minute.

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