Podcast: Emergency COVID-19 TRIPS Waiver: With U.S. Now Supporting, What’s Next?

On May 5th, the Biden administration announced its support for an emergency COVID-19 waiver of “TRIPS” intellectual property barriers at the World Trade Organization. As we’ve detailed in previous episodes, 100 mainly developing countries have pushed for a TRIPS waiver to facilitate more production of COVID-19 vaccines, tests and treatments around the world. 

By reversing the Trump administration block against waiver negotiations, the Biden-Harris administration created momentum for a waiver to be adopted. And made clear saving lives is the priority. 

But while we celebrate this historic U.S. announcement and the efforts of people around the world to get a waiver, the Pharma lobby is gearing up to derail, weaken or delay any waiver. In this episode, we reflect on the U.S. campaign for a TRIPS waiver, and the fight still to come as we work to secure the fastest possible agreement on a waiver covering all intellectual property barriers for COVID-19 vaccines, tests & treatments.

Learn more at rethinktrade.org.

Music: Groove Grove by Kevin MacLeod. Link: https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3831-groove-grove. License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Transcribed by Sally King

Ryan:

Welcome back to Rethinking Trade where we don’t just talk about trade policy, we fight to change it. I’m Ryan and I’m joined once again by our in-house trade expert, Lori Wallach. We just took a pretty long break from recording episodes because we got pretty busy over here in the office. That’s actually what we’re going to be talking about today. Lori, why have we been so busy?

Lori Wallach:

Because a wonderful thing happened. We were trying to get the United States to join countries around the world in agreeing to waive the World Trade Organizations’ monopoly protections for Big Pharma that are undermining access to COVID vaccines and treatments and tests. And drumroll, please… On May 5, the U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai announced that the Biden-Harris administration would prioritize saving human lives and livelihoods over Big Pharma and announced the U.S. would support a waiver of those so-called TRIPS, trade-related aspects of intellectual property rules at the WTO. And in the face of an unprecedented threat posed to all Americans and people worldwide would take that unprecedented action. So that was May 5, big honkin deal and we’ll discuss why. But since then, it’s been back to the barricades because this is an amazing historic announcement for which we should all be extremely thankful to USTR Tai and the Biden-Harris administration, however, there is still a long road to go to translate that amazing historic decision at the U.S. into the momentum to get the actual waiver, which still has to be negotiated and adopted officially by all the WTO member countries in order to translate into more shots and arms, more treatment saving lives, more tests getting ahead of the COVID.

Ryan:

A lot of people are calling this a historic victory. So if we could get into some of the details a little bit, maybe you could tell our listeners why this was indeed such a historic situation.

Lori Wallach:

So everybody who’s listening to this who has ever called a member of Congress on a trade issue, who has ever written a letter, who has ever held a yard sign was planted the yard sign, from NAFTA on the entire arc of 25 years of trade campaigning, you helped make possible a stunning shift. For decades, the U.S. Trade Representative’s office has single-handedly been the agent and envoy of Big Pharma, they have made it their business to beat the stuffing out of other countries that wanted to have generic medicine policies or price controls on medicines. The actual pushing of pharma monopoly rights to control medicines and their production in their prices has been a key element of so-called free trade policy of the U.S. And in fact, our trade agreements NAFTA, the WTO literally have chapters that require every signatory country to establish new monopolies in a free trade agreement. That is right. Yes, you heard it here, a new monopoly and a free trade agreement. This explains why we often call these kinds of agreements in this kind of corporate-rigged trade policy as a lot of corporate protectionism in the name of free trade. So this TRIPS agreement, part of the WTO is one part of that and the US has been not just an advocate of continually pushing out those outrageous monopolies special interest protections for pharma and using free trade agreements to basically Trojan horse special protections for Big Pharma against humans into place but enforced them. So for the United States of America, to join 100 countries, mainly developing countries at the WTO and not be the bully trying to bash them, but rather say, “Hey, we are with you. human lives come first. This is an unprecedented crisis. We join you these intellectual property monopolies must be waived to save people.” Throughout Washington pharma lobbyists hit the deck, there are probably like people running to the hospital with concussions from keeling over. Because in the history of Big Pharma, lobbying and corporate takeover of trade agreements, there has never previously been a moment that is so dramatically the U.S. Trade Representative standing up for people on their health versus protecting Big Pharma.

Ryan:

And we campaign pretty heavily in support of the TRIPS waiver, as did many, many Members of Congress and Senate and a whole lot of folks from all over the U.S. and the world, probably a good number of our listeners were also involved in the campaign. Could you talk about the process a bit and what kinds of obstacles the campaign faced.

Lori Wallach:

So first of all, congratulations to every single person who helped make this possible. I’m not joking when I say the whole arc of trade campaigning from that NAFTA and WTO period in the early 90s, until now has led to a place where the president United States, the Trade Representative, the Vice President, majority of Democrats in the House in the Senate, realize that we need a new approach to trade, the Biden-Harris administration’s worker-centered policy for trade, the shift they’re trying to enact of which this is a part, everyone helped make that happen through decades of advocacy, making the old corporate rigged system untenable, but also helping pave a path forward. And the last half a year’s work by people in the U.S., people around the world has once again, made it such that people power works even against the incredibly mighty Big Pharma. So what we all helped do, if you want to think about very practically, is because the tides turning because the decades that work, because we have allies in USTR Tai who cares about health, who cares about workers who wants our trade to be balanced, to get the benefits of trade and distribute them to everyone, not just to a few special interests, because we have members of Congress who think that way, what we can think of what we did is we basically we paved a road, and we paved the road to get to the place where they want to go. And to get that road paved, we had to basically fight with all of these corporate lobbies of the biotechnology, pharmaceutical, the individual companies, Pfizer, all of those guys were doing everything they could to blow up the road stick critters on us on the road, put broken glass on the road, they were doing everything full scale over, there were hundreds of pharma lobbyists, they were spending millions on ads, they were trying their damnedest to keep the U.S. on the side of pharma and block these negotiations. And people power made it through all of that and help create the path to have the outcome that the world needs. And that is a really powerful lesson. And you know, the way a lot of that was done is very practical, educating each other organizing, talking to our members of Congress to get them to then be advocating for this particular change, making sure that it was clear. This is what people in this country wanted. By the time a poll was taken on this question, 60% of Americans were for the TRIPS waiver, people wouldn’t have known what it was to waive intellectual property barriers for vaccines for COVID in January, by the time that poll was taken in April, the public was realizing this is part of stopping the COVID crisis. This is the only way we’re going to end this pandemic is to get more shots into more arms, get more people try to get more people tested. And so you know it just like one of those epic, like people really need to stop and think about this. This is epic. This is epic, and the arc of many people’s decades of commitment for global justice.

Ryan:

And where are things at right now? So this big announcement was made. It was historic, as we just heard, but the WTO is obviously quite maybe not. So obviously a very complicated governmental body. Can you explain briefly for the listener? How this proposal gets turned into policy at the WTO? What’s the road ahead look like? And what are some of the pitfalls that we have to be aware of?

Lori Wallach:

So I want everyone to be totally pumped about what we achieved because it’s big. However, the task ahead is even bigger. So the U.S. switch sides, the Trump administration had led the opposition to even having what are called text-based, so actual negotiations on the language of the waiver. The U.S. had blocked that under Trump. And we recruited some, “yes” followers. The European Union, which shows up as a bloc at the WTO has one representative Switzerland, Australia, Brazil, Japan, basically, but for Brazil, all developed countries, rich countries, countries that had basically orders for all of their people to be vaccinated. It wasn’t their problem. It was kind of disgusting. And the U.S. was leading that whole pack. What everyone assumed would happen is that when the U.S. which sides the other countries would follow because they were hiding behind the U.S., but Big Pharma has been out on this do or die life and death campaign? Because they see, they see what will happen if the world realizes is their greed that has us now maybe having maybe 5 billion doses made this year because they won’t make deals to let companies pay them to make more doses when the world needs 10 to 15 billion doses to get herd immunity. So they know if they are on the target list and this waiver happens and it’s clear we’re in this mess of having people not having any access in most of the developing world until at least 2023. Not having herd immunity until 2024, having the prospect of vaccine-resistant variants getting around those of us who have been vaccinated in countries that have the opportunity to have vaccines, and putting this all back in lockdown. That all of that is owned by Big Pharma’s greed, they were not going to let that happen if they had anything to say about it. So they have recruited the European Union to continue to block whole countries in Europe because the European Union is itself a coalition. So you know, whole countries have taken positions. The Belgian Parliament said we’re for the waiver. Other countries have said we’re for the waiver. European parliamentarians are the legislative body of the European Union have said they voted we’re for the waiver. But the European Union official Secretariat so that their executive branch remains blocking it as Australia, as does Brazil. And what we’re hearing now is actually in addition to the pharma companies telling them don’t switch sides, there’s now threats. A lot of them have orders for vaccines, these countries, and they’re still waiting for their delivery. And so we understand various of the vaccine-producing monopolists are saying to these governments, “Oh, you really shouldn’t come out in favor of that waiver. Because you know, if you do, I’d hate to see something happen with the timing of the delivery of your vaccines.” Wink wink. I’m sure some of it’s more direct than the Wink wink, I’m sad to say. So there are a bunch of countries that continue to block the process altogether. And we need the U.S. basically, to work with a bunch of the developing countries to figure out a text for a waiver, that basically is an offer, you can’t refuse, which is to say these countries that want to block are going to be in a horrific position in public opinion in their own countries politically untenable. And around the world. If the countries that want a waiver can come up with an agreement that’s broadly supported by the U.S. is a rich country, and there’s some other rich countries, by the developing countries, if there’s a good text, then those other countries may have to fall into place, the ones who want to block. So that gets us to part two, which is what should be in the text. And the deal here is that there are two big issues. One is the scope of what should be covered. So the U.S. announcement said IP barriers broad, it didn’t just say patents, because you know, the farmer guys are running around saying, oh, it should just be if it’s anything, it’s just patents for vaccines. And the reason they’re saying that is they know it won’t make a difference. Because there are also copyrights and what are called industrial design, exclusivities and what are called undisclosed data, and trade secret exclusivity is it’s like a patent but have a different flavor. And so if all those things aren’t waived, you can have all the patent information. It’s like when Madonna said we’re not going to enforce our patents, and they got all that good press, that was incredibly cynical, because everyone knows, like if the patents if you need a three-foot stack of information to make a vaccine, the patents are like one foot of the stack, and the other two feet of the stack are all still locked up in a safe because of these other things that aren’t actually covered. So it needs to be broad IP waivers in the U.S. is for that the scope needs to cover more than just vaccines. So far, the U.S. statement has been vaccines. And you know, it’s obvious why they did that, that is an obvious emergency need to get more vaccines produced the hitches because the US and other developed countries have blocked this waiver since it was introduced in the beginning of October of last year, a lot more people are going to get sick, before even a good waiver can translate into more vaccines, more medicines. So we need to make sure all those extra people who are going to get COVID that number one we can detect it. So the waiver needs to also include diagnostic tests. And we need to make sure they get treated so that we can basically save lives. That’s what this mission is. There are a lot of things are saving lives here, different antibodies and antivirals that just are not available in most of the world where people who get COVID are going to die from COVID when if they were here, or even access to a ventilator if they were here, they could survive. So the scope of coverage needs to be vaccines, of course, but also treatments and diagnostic tests. And then the second big issue is how long should it last? There is a new proposal by the developing country block and it’s saying three years it should last and I think the trick is we know we don’t know a lot about what this vaccine is going to do. We don’t know what the variants that are coming up could be, we don’t know how long the vaccines will create immunity. But we need boosters, we need boosters, because they’re variants, we need boosters, because the immune effect does not last for more than pick your time. So three years may be a good place to start. The other way to do it is to have some kind of a trigger, which has to do with what the infection rates are, the replication rates are an X number of parts of the world, the duration just needs to be long enough so that the access to the information can translate into actually making more medicine, which is to say, you know, if it’s like a one-year waiver, who’s going to invest in setting up that new vaccine line, or that new diagnostic test manufacturing line, and we need to make sure that the waiver actually covers enough vaccines, enough tests so that we actually enough treatments so that we actually end the pandemic. So those are the big issues a lot of work to do. And the piece of it in the U.S. is basically to have it really clear that there’s broad support in the U.S. for a speedy because this has to be decided now we can’t be horsing around for months about this comprehensive needs to cover all the stuff that needs to cover long enough to work waiver. And to do that there going to be a bunch of cool opportunities for everyone to get involved in phase two of the campaign.

Ryan:

And as always, you can go to rethinktrade.org stay tuned as we announce next steps in the campaign and you can go to tradewatch.org as well. If you want to get a lot more information about all the stuff you just heard about. You can also check out previous episodes we’ve done covering the TRIPS waiver issue, we can get a lot more background. Thanks, Lori.

Lori Wallach:

Thank you.

Ryan:

Rethinking Trade is produced by Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. To learn more you can visit rethinktrade.org You can also visit tradewatch.org. Stay tuned for more and thank you for listening.