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.