Big Pharma = 1. World’s poorest nations = 0.
That was the score on Thursday, last week, when South African officials ripped into the Joe Biden administration for not granting a temporary waiver for generic versions of the various COVID-19 vaccines, now protected by monopoly patents the next 17 years.
Biden had approved a $4 billion American taxpayer donation to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) nonprofit vaccine distribution scheme – COVAX – backed by multi-billionaire Bill Gates. However, only AstraZeneca (AZN) signed a supply deal, and that one’s based on honoring their patent to not allow generic versions.
South Africa criticized “rich” countries like the U.S. and U.K. for publicly stressing the need for international cooperation to fight Covid-19, while at the same time blocking a patent waiver that would help other manufacturers ramp up vaccine production across the globe.
One year on, three million deaths later, there is still huge disparity in access to vaccines, while the technology and knowledge for the development and production of vaccine is monopolized through the intellectual property system, with only select manufacturers allowed to manufacture by way of a license, and even then on terms that restrict production and supply, according to the South African government.
There are a handful of developed countries blocking progress on the discussion of our proposal that has received massive global support, the representative continued.
These same countries call for international solidarity and yet at the same time have purchased most of the vaccine supply sufficient to vaccinate their population several times over with the result of denying developing countries access to vaccines.
Along with India and some 100 other nations, South Africa said intellectual property protections are artificially limiting vaccine supply by keeping manufacturing under the control of profit-driven pharmaceutical corporations.
Currently, less than one percent of coronavirus vaccines are going to low-income countries, and most of the world’s population may not be vaccinated until 2023 or 2024.
The international coalition has petitioned the WTO to temporarily suspend intellectual property rights on coronavirus-related medical products, so that generic vaccines can be rapidly and cheaply produced in various generic factories worldwide.
The effort has failed to win the support of the U.S., the U.K. and the European Union so far, as major drug companies have argued allowing generic shots would not make the vaccine rollout faster.
More than two million petitions from Americans have been presented to the White House, hoping to gain Biden’s support of waivers, but no response so far.
Meanwhile, reports from the first quarter of 2021 indicate more than 100 lobbyists were mobilized to contact Congress and members of the Biden administration, and urge them to oppose the waiver.
Lobbyists working against the proposal include: Mike McKay, a key fundraiser for House Democrats, now working on retainer for Pfizer, as well as several former staff members of the U.S. Office of Trade Representative, which oversees negotiations with the WTO.
The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PHARMA) told Biden that waivers would “undermine the global response to the pandemic, including ongoing effort to tackle new variants.”
A group of Republican senators led by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) – a vocal critic of former President Donald Trump – have also asked Biden not to support a waiver.
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Some pundits argue that even a temporary waiver of property rights is not enough, because the Moderna vaccine wasn’t actually developed with Moderna financial investment.
Alex Lawson, Executive Director of Social Security Works, contends that Moderna deserves no exclusive use at all. His conclusion: our taxes paid for the vaccine’s development, and the public – not the company – should own the rights, allowing generic versions immediately.
The research and development of the vaccine were paid for by our U.S. taxpayer dollars, to the tune of $2.5 billion. In fact, Dolly Parton put more money into the vaccine than the company it is named after, when she donated $1 million to the effort, Lawson said.
This isn’t Moderna’s vaccine. It is the people’s vaccine, and it’s time for the law to reflect that.
The government should never have granted Moderna a monopoly over our vaccine. The best time to license the people’s vaccine to generic manufacturers was months ago. The second best time is right now.
Lawson said that Moderna’s vaccine should be the “public option”, but allow Pfizer and other drug companies to keep their own patent rights.
There’s no need for the Biden administration to grant generic licensing on every vaccine, although legally they certainly could.
Pfizer, and any other vaccines like Johnson & Johnson that ultimately get approved by the FDA, can keep their monopolies. But we need a public option, and that’s the so-called Moderna vaccine that we funded with our public dollars.
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Opposition to lifting waivers has brought together some strange allies, proving once again that the establishment is neither right nor left, but works together with both political camps.
For example, you might expect waiver push-back from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Business Roundtable, and the International Intellectual Property Alliance, but who would have predicted the same from Howard Dean?
That once-caught screaming Presidential candidate and the former Democrat National Committee chair has obediently echoed the arguments of the drug industry and joined the opposition in this waiver battle.
So far, the White House also seems captured by the drug cabal.