Up against the clock: Coronavirus vaccine
Up against the clock: Coronavirus vaccine

A few days ago, bil­lion­aire Bill Gates angered mil­lions of peo­ple (and even left a few of his admir­ers dumb­found­ed) when he affirmed that he oppos­es sus­pend­ing patents on coro­n­avirus vac­cines. Today, the Biden-Har­ris admin­is­tra­tion respon­si­bly took the oppo­site stance, anger­ing pret­ty much nobody except for phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal exec­u­tives and their lob­by­ists, while delight­ing every­one else.

“This is a glob­al health cri­sis, and the extra­or­di­nary cir­cum­stances of the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic call for extra­or­di­nary mea­sures,” said Kather­ine Tai, the Unit­ed States trade rep­re­sen­ta­tive, in a state­ment. “The admin­is­tra­tion believes strong­ly in intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty pro­tec­tions, but in ser­vice of end­ing this pan­dem­ic, sup­ports the waiv­er of those pro­tec­tions for COVID-19 vaccines.”

“More than one hun­dred coun­tries sup­port a tem­po­rary waiv­er of some World Trade Orga­ni­za­tion rules that guar­an­tee phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal firms monop­oly con­trol over how much med­i­cine is pro­duced, yet the Unit­ed States remains opposed,” pro­gres­sive econ­o­mist Joseph Stigliz wrote pri­or to Tai’s announce­ment.

But not any­more, thank goodness!

The admin­is­tra­tion’s deci­sion drew praise from many pro­gres­sive lead­ers, includ­ing Sen­a­tor Bernie Sanders of Ver­mont and Sen­a­tor Eliz­a­beth War­ren of Mass­a­chu­setts, Biden’s two main pro­gres­sive rivals for the 2020 nomination.

I applaud the Biden admin­is­tra­tion for tak­ing this bold step to speed up the pro­duc­tion and avail­abil­i­ty of coro­n­avirus vac­cines,” Sanders tweet­ed. “I also rec­og­nize the ded­i­cat­ed work done by activists around the world to put this issue on the glob­al agen­da. We are all in this together.” 

“I urged Pres­i­dent Biden to do every­thing he can to help expand glob­al vac­cine access, and I’m glad his admin­is­tra­tion agreed to sup­port the WTO TRIPS waiv­er to help coun­tries expand man­u­fac­tur­ing of treat­ments and vac­cines,” said Sen­a­tor Eliz­a­beth War­ren. “This is a human­i­tar­i­an cri­sis and it impacts all of us.”

Stiglitz was entire­ly cor­rect when he argued: “Any delay in ensur­ing the great­est avail­abil­i­ty of vac­cines and ther­a­peu­tics is moral­ly wrong and fool­ish — both in terms of pub­lic health and the econ­o­my. The waiv­er is a crit­i­cal first step.”

The pan­dem­ic has already claimed too many lives. To allow it to con­tin­ue rav­aging the world com­mu­ni­ty when we have proven vac­cines that could stop it — if we can only get them into peo­ple’s arms — would be crim­i­nal. So-called “intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty rights” are not more impor­tant than human lives.

Prof­it-obsessed drug com­pa­nies are, as men­tioned, unhappy.

““This deci­sion will sow con­fu­sion between pub­lic and pri­vate part­ners, fur­ther weak­en already strained sup­ply chains and fos­ter the pro­lif­er­a­tion of coun­ter­feit vac­cines,” groused Stephen J. Ubl, the pres­i­dent and chief exec­u­tive of the Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal Research and Man­u­fac­tur­ers of America.

How so, Mr. Ubl?

In our view, coun­ter­feit vac­cines and bro­ken down sup­ply chains are much more like­ly if we don’t sus­pend the patents on these vaccines.

Mere­ly sus­pend­ing the patents, of course, isn’t going to be enough: it is only one step in the right direc­tion. But it’s a step that need­ed to be tak­en. The Trump regime was adamant­ly against it. For­tu­nate­ly, the Biden-Har­ris admin­is­tra­tion has come to a dif­fer­ent con­clu­sion. This is great news for the world community.

It’s also some­what unprece­dent­ed. As Asia Rus­sell, who heads the AIDS treat­ment advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tion Health GAP, said: “No U.S.T.R. [Unit­ed States Trade Rep­re­sen­ta­tive] has made a pro­nounce­ment like this.”

The phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal indus­try con­tends that sus­pend­ing patents on the vac­cines will dis­cour­age “inno­va­tion” in the future. That’s non­sense. What they real­ly mean is that they’re wor­ried they won’t make as much mon­ey in the future.

Com­pa­nies like Pfiz­er, Mod­er­na, John­son & John­son, AstraZeneca, and oth­ers have ben­e­fit­ed tremen­dous­ly from pub­lic invest­ments in health research, both in the Unit­ed States and else­where. Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies don’t suc­ceed in the mar­ket­place of their own accord. They all rely on the pub­lic ser­vices and infra­struc­ture that the tax­pay­ers of this coun­try pay for, from our court sys­tem to the Nation­al Insti­tutes of Health to our ports and highways.

We’re in a pan­dem­ic and mil­lions of lives are at stake. The notion that patents are more sacred than human­i­ty’s future is sim­ply absurd.

For­tu­nate­ly, sense is pre­vail­ing over self­ish­ness. There’s a lot more work to do, but this deci­sion will help us set off down the right path.

And don’t wor­ry, phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal exec­u­tives. You and the com­pa­nies you are respon­si­ble for will be just fine. Your abil­i­ty to “inno­vate” will not be negat­ed by the sus­pen­sion of patents on coro­n­avirus vac­cines. This move won’t hurt you. To the con­trary: it will open the doors to some excit­ing new opportunities.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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