At Global Covid-19 Summit, Biden's Silence on Pharmaceutical Monopolies Speaks Volumes

The White House appears to have no plans to break Big Pharma’s stranglehold on intellectual property for Covid-19 vaccines and treatments.

Sarah Lazare

President Joe Biden speaks via video at the Global Covid-19 Summit on May 12, 2022, in Washington, D.C.

Just over a year ago, on May 5, 2021, the Biden administration pledged that it would support ​“waiving intellectual property protections for Covid-19 vaccines” at the World Trade Organization (WTO), in order to expand global access to cheaper, generic versions of vaccines.

At the Second Global Covid-19 Summit this May 12, co-hosted by the United States, Belize, Germany, Indonesia and Senegal, a key goal was to accelerate collective efforts to get shots into arms.” Yet a power lineup of top U.S. officials — President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, USAID Administrator Samantha Power and Secretary of State Antony Blinken — failed to mention the WTO effort in their public remarks. 

At the first Global Covid-19 Summit, which took place last September, the administration mentioned the need for a Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) waiver for vaccines as one of its key takeaways. This time, the efforts to suspend intellectual property rules at the WTO were notably missing from the White House’s summit fact sheet.

The omission at this second summit rankled some public health activists. Without addressing all the barriers to sharing technology across the globe, the summit ends up being about charity (which remains woefully insufficient) instead of the justice we need to see,” Melinda St. Louis, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, which monitors corporate power, told In These Times in an email.

Relatively early in the pandemic, in October 2020, India and South Africa proposed that the WTO suspend key intellectual property rules related to Covid-19 vaccines, tests and treatments, so that the Global South could expand manufacturing of vaccines, in order to meet the global need. Yet, that proposal has been held up by opposition from the European Union, and lack of aggressive action from the Biden administration, despite the administration’s May 2021 pledge. 

A new compromise deal is now circulating in the TRIPS Council, the body that governs intellectual property rules. But activists have blasted that text as potentially more harmful than helpful, because it excludes tests and diagnostics, cuts off countries including China and all developed” nations and introduces new barriers for the production of generics. The United States and European Union played a role in shaping some of the text’s more harmful provisions.

Leading up to the Global Covid-19 Summit, public health groups had been calling for Biden to reject the circulating text and embrace a comprehensive intellectual property waiver (which is commonly referred to as a TRIPS waiver). In a May 9 letter, more than 170 U.S.-based social justice, labor and interfaith organizations made this demand, arguing, We need every possible tool to overcome barriers and improve equitable access to Covid-19 medical products.”

The stakes are high amid troubling global inequalities in access to Covid-19 vaccines, tests and treatments. Africa lags far behind the rest of the world in immunizations, with just 21.5% of its population having received one dose. This compares to 79% in the United States and Canada. According to a recent estimate by the World Health Organization, nearly 15 million people have died as a direct result of Covid-19, or due to its deterioration of public health systems between January 2020 and December 2021 — a number that is more than twice the official toll.

The U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai is currently consulting with various parties and organizations about the text of an intellectual property deal. That could, in part, explain the silence of top officials. Yet, other countries that are also mulling the text used their platforms to speak out in support of a robust waiver.

We continue to advocate for a TRIPS waiver in the WTO to improve global access to vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics so that the objective of having locally made vaccines is achieved,” said South African President Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa, making a clear appeal for a more robust waiver for all Covid-19 health products, not just vaccines. This stands in contrast to the limited proposal circulating presently in the TRIPS Council. 

WTO rules, particularly TRIPS, need to be more flexible,” said Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Biden did make one announcement at the summit that has promise for advancing global health equity, if the president follows through. Today I’m announcing the United States will share critical Covid-19 technologies through the World Health Organization Covid-19 Technology Access Pool. We’re making available health technologies that are owned by the United States government, including stabilized spike protein that is used in many Covid-19 vaccines,” he said.

The announcement is a turn toward sharing not only doses, but knowledge, which is the difference between charity and justice,” said Peter Maybarduk, the director of Public Citizen’s Global Access to Medicines Program, in a press statement. This path, if pursued with seriousness of purpose, can improve resilience to future pandemics and bring a measure of justice to a terribly unjust time.”

Yet, the lack of discussion of any TRIPS waiver among high-level Biden officials at the summit remains concerning for advocates. The Global South has considerable capacity to start manufacturing mRNA vaccines, but facilities are lying fallow, because companies like Pfizer and Moderna will not share recipes, copyrights and technical know-how. 

This Global Covid-19 Summit would have been a prime opportunity for the Biden administration to recommit to delivering a comprehensive TRIPS waiver and to ensure that it covers vaccines, tests and treatment, especially as talks have been derailed by European Union intransigence,” said St. Louis of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. 

A year has passed since President Biden announced support and, absent strong U.S. leadership, the WTO still has not delivered this important waiver.”

Josh Mei contributed research to this report.

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Sarah Lazare is the editor of Workday Magazine and a contributing editor for In These Times. She tweets at @sarahlazare.

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