Rethinking Trade - Season 1, Episode 27
Millions of people around the world may not get COVID-19 vaccines until as late as 2024—unless President Biden reverses the Trump administration’s deadly position at the World Trade Organization (WTO).
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. Do you all remember the episode we did back in December about how rules at the World Trade Organization were preventing countries across the world from accessing the technology they need to produce COVID-19 vaccines and treatments and how the Trump administration had led the way in opposing a proposed waiver to temporarily on an emergency basis allow those countries to access that technology? Well, unfortunately, the situation has not changed even though Trump is out of office. So we are re-releasing that episode today. But before we go back to it, we’re going to hear from Lori and get an update on the situation and hear a little bit about some of the campaign work that we are involved with to try to change the U.S.’s position at the WTO regarding these intellectual property protections for Big Pharma. Lori, why don’t you just give us an update on what’s happening and why this is so important right now.
Lori: So two really important things have happened since we last talked about the WTO rules that could really undermine the necessary supply of COVID vaccines and treatments and testing worldwide. Number one, the WTO had its first meeting since the Biden administration entered office. And unfortunately, it does not appear that the memo got to the permanent U.S. WTO staff sitting in Geneva, there has not yet been a new U.S, Trade Representative confirmed; she’s going to be great. And there’s no new U.S. WTO ambassador to give political marching orders. So that crew that is in Geneva all the time at the WTO just repeated the same old bad old pharma defense that Trump had been dishing out, which is basically, “Yeah, there’s no need to change these WTO rules to make sure that the developing world also gets vaccines and gets treatments. We’re just going to make sure that all these pharmaceutical companies get these monopoly rights.” And you know, no shocker. The U.S. officials did not mention that these vaccines that the U.S. pharmaceutical companies they touted developed, were funded by us, the taxpayers. Yes, these companies did not put their own money up. They got U.S. government money, ie our tax dollars for the development for billions in pre-purchases to cover the expense of the testing, etc. So if there’s ever been a time that a waiver of Monopoly rights about where and how much of something is going to be made, as far as medicine and its price, the vaccines for COVID would be the case. So, unfortunately, new administration, but not yet a new position. And that’s what’s going to take everyone’s activism. So as Ryan said, we have a petition going on about this, there are other things everyone can do. In addition to signing onto the petition, please consider calling your member of Congress, because here’s the second development, it has become incredibly clear that no one anywhere will be safe from COVID. And this epidemic cannot be stopped in any one country, because we have all witnessed variants, mutations of the original virus that are developing wherever there are major outbreaks. And if we do not get vaccines to people around the world, we can vaccinate ourselves 100% in the U.S., but we’re going to see a variant a mutation that’s not going to be subject to that vaccine. Hell, that could reinfect people have antibodies from surviving new original COVID and anytime there’s a chance of huge outbreaks there’s a huge chance of more mutations. And the most recent studies suggest people in middle and low-income countries won’t be able to get vaccinated until the end of 2022. And people in the poorest countries until 2024. That means if we’re being really self-centered and thinking about just what it means for us, we in the U.S. 100% vaccinated, let’s just say, will not be safe. If we do not get these TRIPS, rules waived. At the WTO, so that as much vaccine can be made in as many countries as possible, as quickly as possible so that everyone can get vaccinated, everyone can get tested, everyone can get treated, no one will be safe until everyone is safe. And right now, these WTO rules are a big impediment to all of that. So please help get the word out, help get the U.S. to join the rest of the world and do the right thing. The fix is not a heavy lift, the U.S. just needs to stop blocking the initiative by South Africa and India as the WTO that now has more than 100 countries supporting it. So that more vaccine more treatment, more testing can be produced worldwide.
Ryan: You can find the link to the petition in the description of this podcast episode, or you can go to rethinktrade.org or tradewatch.org. You can find the petition there, sign it, share it with folks. And stay tuned, because what’s following is our episode from December where we take a bit more of a deep dive into this issue.
Lori: So let’s take one step back. The World Trade Organization enforces a dozen plus agreements, including the old trade rules, which are called GATT, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, that’s the part that really is about trade. One of those other agreements is the thing you just mentioned Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights, which is often called TRIPS. That is basically the antithesis of free trade. That is a set of monopoly protections every WTO signatory country is obliged to guarantee to big pharmaceutical corporations. And that includes a guarantee of a 20-year monopoly. For any medicine, it creates periods of exclusivity over the data use to prove a drug is safe so that the generic manufacturers sometimes have to wait even longer. All of those kinds of rules, of course, are really the opposite of what you think of for free trade, right competition. Those are rules designed to block competition to give monopoly powers to big pharmaceutical firms, they can charge any damn price they want for medicines. So in the face of having that imposed on 160 countries worldwide, we’re all but the least developed countries are required to have these very stringent monopoly protections for big pharmaceutical firms. A set of countries led by South Africa and India came in with a proposal now supported by dozens of countries. And that was to waive those pharmaceutical company, monopoly rights for temporarily anything during the COVID crisis that is necessary for the production of treatments of vaccines and the technologies around the production. So the actual medicines, and also the know-how to produce them. And it’s really obvious why to do this, we need to get billions of doses of vaccines, hundreds of millions of doses of treatments. And the only way the whole world is going to get better is if the whole world gets better. It’s an epidemic. So it’s actually in the interest of people all around the world to get enough of the vaccine made, so that there’s no one who can’t get it and quickly. But right now, the way the WTO rules are set up, if a country, for instance, simply copied the vaccine, or insisted that the company provide the know-how for how to copy the vaccine, then it would be in violation of these WTO rules. And a country’s imperative to save lives would subject the country to indefinite trade sanctions. So a developing country would have huge penalties billions of dollars put against its actual exports needed to keep its country going, because they put people’s lives first.
Ryan: And what would that process actually look like if a country was held in violation?
Lori: Well, let’s just be super concrete, because sadly, this is not the first time this has happened. During the peak of the AIDS epidemic, when hundreds of thousands people were dying, antiretroviral treatments were available, but they were so prohibitively expensive, that throughout the developing world, in Brazil and South Africa, people were dying needlessly for whom if generic versions of these medicines could have been produced, their lives would have been the life of a person in the U.S. or Europe, with AIDS which is basically the anti-retrovirals would make it a treatable perennial but treatable disease. Instead of having a chronic treated disease, people all over the global south are dying. And countries started to want to make their own medicines and some developing countries have the capacity India can do it. Argentina can do it South Africa, Brazil, and the United States on behalf of its big pharmaceutical companies basically threatened to go to the WTO and attack those specific countries for violating these trade agreement. pharma monopoly roles, instead of basically helping those countries try and save the lives of their people who had HIV or AIDS. And that case ended up blowing up because that was folks who remember, when Al Gore was running for president, people from act up, were following him around busting into his event screaming “greed kills.” Well, that was a WTO TRIPS case, that was the gift them to back down the Clinton ministration on these attacks using the WTO against HIV/AIDS medicines. So what happens with the sanctions is practical, one of these WTO tribunals decides that some country’s health law is a violation of the WTO rules. And then the country is told you have 90 days to get rid of that regime for making medicine available that pharmaceutical generic company, and if you don’t, then we’re going to impose penalties on all of your exports. What that means practically is, for instance, every good that a developing country would export would be hit with a huge tariff on the way into other countries. So that basically, it’s like a strangle. It’s basically we’re gonna choke you to death if you don’t change. And we’re going to do that by cutting off your exports.
Ryan: I know there’s an effort underway right now to pressure the U.S. and other countries to support this waiver at the WTO and prioritize responding to the pandemic over protecting Big Pharma intellectual property rights. But ultimately, who has the power to change the U.S. position here? And also, what are the prospects of this position changing under the incoming Biden administration?
Lori: Ryan? That is exactly the question to ask. So the who has the power to change this? This is a position that’s taken in the executive branch. It doesn’t require Congress to pass anything. Whoever is the president and the president’s top trade official, the U.S. Trade Representative decides the positions the United States will take at the World Trade Organization, the United States sits in a council it’s called the general counsel with the other countries who are signatories to the WTO. The general council takes positions if the United States, which under the Trump administration has joined Europe and handful of other countries who are the homes of the big pharmaceutical corporations to block this proposal if the U.S. change sides, something the Biden administration could do without Congress again, and then what it would look like is, the instructions go from the White House to the U.S. representatives at the WTO in Geneva. And they go to that meeting, which the next one right now their meeting, we’re going to say the wrong thing, the U.S. has been to say the wrong thing. So when it meets again, in January, that General Counsel, the U.S. can go in and say we now join those countries that want to temporarily waive the WTO special monopoly protections for Big Pharma. It’s a temporary waiver until the epidemic crisis is over. It only applies to those medicines and technologies with respect to vaccines and treatments for this crisis. But we join putting public health first that’s all it would take. And who can make that happen? Well, that’s us. So we all need to be taking action to contact our members of the House or members of the Senate. And frankly, as soon as Joe Biden is sworn in the White House, which will be taking, of course the usual hotline, emails and letters, and the reason to get Congress engaged as this is not a one-off. So these WTO rules in this particular waiver is extremely urgent. It’s literally going to make the difference between life and death for people all over the world in relation to the COVID-19 epidemic. But this is a fight that we started with the NAFTA renegotiation, when we got the most extreme Big Pharma giveaways that Trump added to the old NAFTA making it worse, we got that out. But we need the United States of America to have a new position about these kinds of pharma protections in trade agreements, they don’t belong there at all. It’s not just the WTO rules should be waived, but rather we need to negotiate these terms. So we’re putting people’s health first. Yes, we want to reward innovation. So when a company comes up with a great invention, there are ways to reward that, but the amount of time and what the balance is between people getting access to medicine, and the gluttonous profits that these Big Pharma companies make is a real problem. Because this is something where on the first day the Biden administration can show they’re going a different way on trade. They’re going to put people over profits, they’re going to put health over Big Pharma. And this is one of those things they can do on their own if we all join in and push them to do it.
Ryan: And if you go to rethinktrade.org, you can scroll to the bottom to the take action section and you can send a letter from there to your representative and senators. And on the eyes on trade blog. You can also which I’ll link in the bio of this episode, you can read more about the WTO trips issue. Rethinking Trade is produced by public citizen’s global trade watch, I would encourage you to visit rethinktrade.org as well as tradewatch.org to educate yourself and to find out how you can get involved in the work we’re doing to fight for fairer and more equitable trade policies.