The virus of COVID-19 vaccine “apartheid” is challenged as U.S., Pope Francis back waiving patents on life-saving vaccines

The United States will endorse a motion at the World Trade Organization seeking to waive draconian patent and related intellectual property protections that have thus far prevented the world from achieving global COVID-19 vaccines equity, the Biden-Harris administration announced this week. Pope Francis announced his support of “universal access to the vaccine” and condemned the “virus of individualism” that “makes us indifferent to the suffering of others”.
Photo by Daniel Schludi on Unsplash

BY OBERT MADONDO | @Obiemad | MAY 8, 2021

This week, the Biden-Harris Administration made a surprise decision that shames the burgeoning “vaccine apartheid” at the heart of the global production and distribution of life-saving COVID-19 vaccines. It announced its support for the waiving of the World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) intellectual property rights for life-saving COVID-19 vaccines. The US will endorse a motion at the WTO seeking to waive draconian patent and related intellectual property protections that have thus far prevented the world from achieving global COVID-19 vaccines equity.

Meanwhile, on Saturday, Pope Francis announced his support of “universal access to the vaccine and the temporary suspension of intellectual property rights” for COVID-19 vaccines, reports The Guardian. The Argentinian pontiff condemned the “virus of individualism” that “makes us indifferent to the suffering of others”. Pope Francis said:

A variant of this virus is closed nationalism, which prevents, for example, an internationalism of vaccines.

Another variant is when we put the laws of the market or intellectual property above the laws of love and the health of humanity.

The Biden-Harris administration announced its “support for waiving intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines” through a statement issued by U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai:

This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures. 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. We will actively participate in text-based negotiations at the World Trade Organization (WTO) needed to make that happen. Those negotiations will take time given the consensus-based nature of the institution and the complexity of the issues involved.

The Administration’s aim is to get as many safe and effective vaccines to as many people as fast as possible. As our vaccine supply for the American people is secured, the Administration will continue to ramp up its efforts – working with the private sector and all possible partners – to expand vaccine manufacturing and distribution. It will also work to increase the raw materials needed to produce those vaccines.

On May 5, Ambassador Tai tweeted:

These extraordinary times and circumstances of call for extraordinary measures. The US supports the waiver of IP protections on COVID-19 vaccines to help end the pandemic and we’ll actively participate in @WTO negotiations to make that happen.

The Biden-Harris administration is willing to challenge the pharmaceutical industry and its burgeoning COVID-19 vaccine profiteering.

According to Lori Wallach, the director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, by reversing former U.S. President Donald Trump’s “self-defeating blockage of temporary COVID-19 waiver of WTO intellectual property barriers,” the Biden-Harris administration has prioritized “human lives and livelihoods” and cut “through Big Pharma’s lies and threats to fight for the speediest possible end to the unprecedented threats posed to all Americans and people worldwide by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Below are a few news headlines on the Biden-Harris administration’s decision to endorse a motion at the WTO seeking to waive draconian patent and related intellectual property protections that have thus far prevented the world from achieving global COVID-19 vaccines equity:

The Guardian: US support for Covid vaccine patent waivers puts pressure on EU and UK

It was a “seismic decision” by Joe Biden, the US president, say campaigners who have fought for the demolition of patent protection on vaccines and drugs for decades. The US administration has amazed supporters and critics alike by throwing its considerable weight behind the pleas of South Africa, India and about 100 developing countries at the World Trade Organization to overturn patents on Covid vaccines in the interests of getting more of them, more cheaply and faster, to huge populations in need.

Patents preserve the profits of the multinational companies that make drugs and vaccines. They make it illegal for up to 20 years for manufacturers of generic medicines to turn out cheap copycat versions. In this pandemic where, as the World Health Organization says, no one is safe until everyone is safe, there is a powerful moral case for ditching them.

But the US has always been home to much of big pharma and a diehard protector of patents, which the industry argues are vital to allow them to recoup the huge and risky investment they make in research and development. (Boseley, May 6, 2021) READ FULL STORY

CounterPunch: Biden’s big steps on TRIPS: Getting the world vaccinated

President Biden made a huge step yesterday when his trade representative, Katherine Tai, announced that the United States would be supporting a resolution at the World Trade Organization (WTO), to suspend intellectual property rules on vaccines for the duration of the pandemic. This resolution had been introduced by India and South Africa back in October. The United States had previously been leading wealthy countries in opposition to the resolution. With Biden now reversing the position of the Trump administration, the resolution is likely to be approved.

However, the approval is not necessarily a foregone conclusion. In reversing the U.S. position, Biden went against a major lobbying campaign by the pharmaceutical industry. Many European countries also have large pharmaceutical companies. They are being every bit as vigorous in lobbying their own countries’ governments to get them to maintain their opposition to the resolution. Since everything at the WTO has be unanimous, a single country can block action on the resolution. Nonetheless, it is unlikely that any of the European countries, or even a small group of them, would want to be seen standing in the way of getting the world vaccinated as quickly as possible. (Baker, May 7, 2021) READ FULL STORY

STAT: The U.S. opened pandora’s box on IP waivers for Covid-19 vaccines. What happens now?

In a surprising move, the Biden administration has said it will support a controversial proposal to temporarily waive intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines in a bid to increase global supplies of desperately needed doses. The proposal, which was introduced before the World Trade Organization last fall by South Africa and India, would cover patents, industrial designs, copyrights, and protection of trade secrets. Ultimately, a waiver would make it easier for countries that permit compulsory licensing to allow a manufacturer to export vaccines. (Silverman, May 6, 2021) READ FULL REPORT

World Health Organization: WHO Director-General commends United States decision to support temporary waiver on intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines

WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus praised the commitment by the United States administration of President Joe Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris to support the temporary waiver of intellectual property on COVID-19 vaccines in a bold move to end the pandemic as quickly as possible.

“This is a monumental moment in the fight against COVID-19. The commitment by the President of the United States Joe Biden and Ambassador Katherine Tai, the US Trade Representative, to support the waiver of IP protections on vaccines is a powerful example of American leadership to address global health challenges,” said Dr Tedros. “I commend the United States on its historic decision for vaccine equity and prioritizing the well-being of all people everywhere at a critical time. Now let’s all move together swiftly, in solidarity, building on the ingenuity and commitment of scientists who produced life-saving COVID-19 vaccines.” (WHO, May 5, 2021) READ FULL STORY

The American Prospect: The vaccine waiver invites reform of intellectual-property abuses

The drug industry is fiercely resisting Biden’s proposed waiver of intellectual-property protections, not just because of lost exorbitant profits this year and next, but because the waiver is the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent. And the industry is right. The entire intellectual-property regime of patents, trademarks, and copyrights has become a protectionist racket to favor incumbents, block innovators, promote monopoly prices, and harm consumers.

The original idea of patents was to promote and reward invention. The system has been turned into its opposite. Over the past several decades, intellectual-property protection has been a one-way ratchet – longer terms of patent protection for lifesaving drugs; longer copyright protection for everything from music to digital techniques; more subtle and insidious blocking techniques to resist potential innovators who might provide competition. (Kuttner, May 7, 2021) READ FULL STORY

Foreign Policy: Can Biden’s vaccine patent waiver end the pandemic?

U.S. President Joe Biden is winning widespread praise from health experts for endorsing a six-month-old proposal to waive the pharmaceutical industry’s intellectual property (IP) rights on COVID-19 vaccines. But several questions remain, including how quickly Wednesday’s decision will translate to more vaccines in the developing world and whether other rich countries will join the United States in supporting Biden’s plan. One critical issue is how many people around the world will die before negotiations — which can take months — are finished and the necessary technology and production capacity is transferred to those in need. India, which has been worst hit by a new surge of the coronavirus, has again broken the record for the highest daily number of new cases, with 412,262 new infections reported in the past 24 hours.

The U.S. announcement was narrowly focused on intellectual property rights for vaccines without reference to patent waivers on other medical tools, including treatments, personal protective equipment, and testing kits, as called for in the original proposal made by India and South Africa last October at the World Trade Organization (WTO). (Hirsh, May 6, 2021) READ FULL STORY

NBC News: U.S. reversal on vaccine patents offers countries in crisis hope, but hurdles persist

The Biden administration’s decision to support waiving intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines was hailed by activists and health officials Thursday as a decisive move that could upend the cozy relationship between rich countries and pharmaceutical giants and mark a crucial step toward addressing global vaccine inequality.

The move drew strong criticism, however, from leading drugmakers and some experts, who are skeptical about its impact on the world’s efforts to fight the coronavirus. And the dramatic shift from Washington also raised questions about what comes next, with focus turning to whether others will follow the United States’ lead. (Smith, May 6, 2021) READ FULL STORY

The Guardian: Prince Harry calls for equitable distribution of Covid vaccines

The Duke of Sussex made his first public appearance since the funeral of his grandfather, the Duke of Edinburgh, at a charity concert in Los Angeles to promote the equitable distribution of coronavirus vaccines worldwide. Prince Harry urged people to “look beyond ourselves with empathy and compassion” during a speech at Vax Live, hosted by Global Citizen at the SoFi stadium before an audience of vaccinated guests.

Harry, appearing without the Duchess of Sussex, who is expecting their second child, praised the world’s frontline medical workers at the concert, which featured a host of famous names from the worlds of music, film and politics. He pleaded for vaccines to be distributed to everyone, everywhere. (Davies, May 3, 2021) READ FULL STORY

The Conversation: TRIPS waiver: there’s more to the story than vaccine patents

The US has announced its limited support for the “TRIPS waiver”, a proposal to suspend intellectual property protections for products and technologies needed for the fight against COVID-19, including vaccines, for the duration of the pandemic. This would involve a temporary suspension of certain rules set out in the TRIPS Agreement, the intellectual property treaty of the World Trade Organization (WTO).

The waiver was first proposed by India and South Africa – two countries with robust generic pharmaceutical manufacturing capacity – in October 2020 as one important tool to address availability of COVID-19 vaccines, diagnostic tools and therapeutic treatments.

For seven months, the proposal has made little progress due to opposition from the US, the EU, Switzerland, the UK, Japan and others.

The surprise announcement garnered a positive response in many quarters, and was soon echoed worldwide, with the EU, New Zealand and France expressing more willingness to negotiate. (Bosse, Kang, Thambisetty, May 7, 2021) READ FULL STORY

Axios: Mixed response in Europe to Biden’s vaccine patents bombshell

The Biden administration surprised the world last night by coming out in favor of waiving patents for coronavirus vaccines — but Europe is divided on the issue. European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen said Brussels would be willing to discuss it; French President Emmanuel Macron said he backed the U.S. position, but a German government spokesman said the proposal would cause “severe complications” for vaccine production. (Lawler, May 6, 2021) READ FULL STORY

Public Citizen: Biden administration reverses Trump’s self-defeating blockage of temporary COVID-19 waiver of WTO intellectual property barriers

Today, the Biden administration announced it would support a temporary waiver of intellectual property (IP) barriers to facilitate more production of COVID-19 vaccines and would enter into textual negotiations on a World Trade Organization (WTO) waiver proposal initiated by South Africa and India. The announcement comes after intensive U.S. and global campaigning. Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, issued the following statement: “Thank you, President Biden and USTR Katherine Tai, for prioritizing saving human lives and livelihoods and cutting through Big Pharma’s lies and threats to fight for the speediest possible end to the unprecedented threats posed to all Americans and people worldwide by the COVID-19 pandemic. It will be critical that U.S. engagement in WTO negotiations leads to the fastest possible agreement on a waiver text that encompasses COVID-19 vaccines and diagnostic tests to prevent virus spread and treatments to save the lives of those engulfed in raging outbreaks around the world.” (Public Citizen, May 5, 2021) READ FULL STORY

Axios: Germany opposes Biden’s support for waiving vaccine patents

The Biden administration’s support for a proposal to waive certain patent protections for coronavirus vaccines would create “severe complications” for vaccine production, a German government spokesperson said Thursday, according to Bloomberg. The patent waiver proposal, which proponents say will help increase vaccine production and deliver doses to the developing world, is working its way through the World Trade Organization and all 164 member countries will have to consent to the decision, according to Reuters. (Knutson, May 6, 2021) READ FULL STORY

The Conversation: US-backed vaccine patent waiver: pros and cons explained

The Biden administration has now agreed to back a proposal to suspend intellectual property protection for COVID vaccines. This is a break from US government’s long-held position on strong intellectual property protection, which has also been supported by many research-intensive countries in western Europe as well and the pharmaceutical industry.

These protections are codified in the World Trade Organization’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreements. India, South Africa, and many other emerging economies have been pushing for a waiver from patent protection, and have been supported in this effort by the director general of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

While the waiver cannot be put into place until other WHO members agree (at which point manufacturers can presumably start production without any licensing agreements), more and more countries that were previously opposed to the deal, including France and New Zealand, are also now indicating their support. It could be a matter of time before the proposal goes into effect.

So what are the pros and cons of this waiver and what are the alternatives? (Bokhari, May 6, 2021) READ FULL STORY

Common Dreams: After Bill Gates’ Opposition, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Says ‘Yes’ to ‘Narrow’ Patent Waivers

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced Thursday its support for “a narrow waiver” of intellectual property protections for Covid-19 vaccines—a shift from the foundation’s previous stance on the issue that comes amid sustained scrutiny over Big Pharma’s role in blocking such a move.

Foundation CEO Mark Suzman’s statement, reported first by Devex, came a day after the Biden administration—in the face of global pressure—announced its support for a TRIPS waiver proposal at the World Trade Organization.

In his remarks, Suzman pointed to “heartbreaking surges in India and Brazil” and said “there’s much more to be done” to increase vaccine access.

“No barriers should stand in the way of equitable access to vaccines, including intellectual property,” he added, “which is why we are supportive of a narrow waiver during the pandemic.”

The announcement come less than three weeks after billionaire Bill Gates, co-chair and trustee of the foundation that bears his name, said in an interview with Sky News that he was against sharing vaccine recipes with the world as a way to stem the global crisis. (Germanos, May 7, 2021) READ FULL STORY

The Guardian: Covid vaccines: what is patent waiving and will it solve the global shortage?

For those advocating for greater access to vaccines, it is a case of two cheers for Joe Biden. His administration’s decision to support a push at the World Trade Organization (WTO) to waive patents on Covid-19 vaccines may be a huge step towards ending vaccine inequity, campaigners say, but on its own it will not have a decisive effect on the health crisis. (Safi, May 6, 2021) READ FULL STORY

Los Angeles Times: Biden’s plan to waive vaccine patents is good news, but not enough to beat the pandemic

The pharmaceutical industry, which thought it had entered the can-do-no-wrong stage of public esteem thanks to its development of COVID-19 vaccines in record time, just got taken down a peg by the Biden administration. On Wednesday, the administration said it supports waiving patent protections for those same vaccines to help combat the pandemic around the world.

Drugmakers, which were counting on lavish profits from the vaccines, squealed like stuck pigs. Phrma, their leading trade group, called the policy “an unprecedented step that will undermine our global response to the pandemic and compromise safety.”

This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures. (Hiltzik, May 7, 2021) READ FULL STORY

CounterPunch: Does Big PhRma know no shame? Profiteering while people die by the hundreds of thousands

The global COVID-19 pandemic is far from over, as the current human catastrophe in India reminds us, a nation of 1.3 billion people where just 2 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated against COVID and more than 400,000 new cases a day are being reported with some 3,000 deaths. Now enter Moderna, with its approved COVID-19 vaccine, pledging to supply the World Health Organization (WHO) with 34 million doses of its vaccine in the fourth quarter of 2021 at its “lowest tiered price.” As Guardian columnist Nesrine Malik has recently observed about India’s large population “trapped and condemned” to live with COVID, “The world needs a global logistical exercise, a sort of Marshall plan that would provide financial support, expert manpower, and medical technology …By the time the real numbers of deaths and infections become clear, it will be far too late for many people.”

The United States has had a reputation since World War II of stepping forward to help under these kinds of circumstances, but where are we now? We’re embroiled in yet another battle by Big PhRMA over patent rights to its vaccines. This is a far cry from the early 1950s, when the first effective vaccine for polio was developed here in the U. S. by Dr. Jonas Salk, with some support from the March of Dimes. When released to the public in 1955, he refused to patent his invention. Questioned by Edward R. Murrow about who would own the patent, he replied: “The American people, I guess. Could you patent the sun?” (Geyman, May 7, 2021) READ FULL STORY

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Obert Madondo
Obert Madondo is an Ottawa-based blogger, activist, photographer, digital rights enthusiast, former political aide, and former international development administrator. Obert is the founder and editor of The Canadian Progressive and The Zimbabwean Progressive, both of which are independent political blogs dedicated to producing fearless, progressive, adversarial, unapologetic, and activism-oriented journalism situated right at the intersection of politics, technology and human rights. Follow Obert on Twitter: @Obiemad
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