Podcast: U.S. Inaction is Enabling COVID-19 Variants to Spread
Rethinking Trade - Season 1 Episode 36
The world celebrated when President Biden announced the U.S. would support a temporary waiver of World Trade Organization “TRIPS” intellectual property barriers to boost global production of COVID-19 vaccines. But months later, Big Pharma’s monopolies remain.
The administration has failed to deliver on the waiver or to get vaccine makers to share their recipes. That means dire shortages of vaccines continue and with the vast majority of people worldwide exposed, COVID is on a murderous, variant-spawning rampage.
Now the delta variant first detected overseas is burning through the U.S. Public health experts are warning that lockdowns and perhaps other measures, like postponing in-person learning, may be necessary. The U.S. must act now to end the pandemic. Every moment of further inaction enables COVID-19 variants to develop and spread.
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Music: Groove Grove by Kevin MacLeod.
Transcribed by Sally King
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. Lori, on May 5, the Biden administration announced its support for waiving TRIPS intellectual property barriers for COVID-19 vaccines at the World Trade Organization. As we’ve detailed in previous episodes, a waiver proposed by South Africa and India would help facilitate more production of COVID-19 vaccines, tests and treatments around the world. By reversing the Trump administration’s block against the waiver, the administration created momentum for it to be adopted at the WTO. But today, three months later, the deal is not done. And with the Delta variant spreading rapidly, pressure is mounting on the administration to do more to make the waiver a reality. What is the current situation with the TRIPS waiver? And why are groups urging more to be done,
Just to remind folks TRIPS stands for the agreement and trade-related aspects of intellectual property. It’s an agreement enforced by the WTO that all of the WTO is members, 160 countries are obliged to give big pharmaceutical companies monopoly control. So for instance, right now, a handful of companies are deciding if and when vaccines are made, there’s a dire shortage as a result, a few companies have the powers over how many tests are made and treatments that are critical to saving the lives of people with COVID. So this waiver is urgent, and not a dang thing has happened. And that is where it is. So two things are going very wrong. One, on the one hand, the binder administration on May 5 did a historic thing and switching sides, having the US be on the right side of history and joined 130 other countries calling for this temporary waiver of these intellectual property barriers in the face of this unprecedented 100 years health crisis to try and save lives, it was exactly the right thing to do. But since then, the US has not really shown the kind of leadership that in the past has been shown at the WTO or other international negotiations, when there really is the US on a mission to get it done. Now, it’s tricky, because the WTO is a place where if big developed countries too heavy-handed, it can backfire. But there is sort of a Goldilocks position not too hard, not too soft, just right. And we’re not there yet with the US is leadership to try and get the deal done. On the other hand, the European Union has come in like gangbusters to mess the damn thing up. So Germany is leading has pushed the European Union, which operates the WTO is a block to oppose a waiver. And they have been strategically obstructionist. They have been merciless, they have been impossible. And instead of the US basically meeting fire with fire, the US has been fairly passive. And so the situation now is more or less Germany with the UK and Switzerland kind of hiding behind the German government, which has ginned up the whole European Union is blocking 130 plus countries that see this urgent waiver as necessary, not sufficient, there’s more, but necessary to start to scale up the needed production of vaccines, tests and treatments. So what’s happening now is basically Germany needs to get the hell out of the way, at this point, it is becoming a Germany versus humanity problem. This is not good history, this is not good luck. They just need to get out of the way. And then you’ve got the US, which needs to step up and help lead with some of the countries like South Africa and India that have this initiative in the first instance, towards getting a deal because three months of so-called negotiations have led to nowhere since the US switch sides and the US showed amazing leadership and getting some of the other small but powerful bloc of countries to stop blocking. So Japan came inside and Mexico and Canada, they’re a bunch of countries that were doing the wrong thing and the US got that fixed, but they still have not been able to deliver the deal. And President Biden and USTR Tai were spot-on. The number one priority needs to be to save lives. And right now it’s not just lives overseas, as important as it is that tens of millions of people could die needlessly. To put this in perspective, of the 4 billion and change vaccines that have been produced and used 85% of them have been used by just 10 countries. So if you’re in the US and you’re hearing this, you’re getting scared about Delta, but you’ve had some months of having a sense of security of having some sense of the vision of what could be normal. There are dozens of countries that haven’t a single shot available, and most of Africa’s below 10% immunized is not supposed to be getting a full set of shots under the current production capacity until maybe 2024. Which, you know, just to be very narrow minded. What do you think the Delta variant in any other variant is going to be coming from but from where the Coronavirus is raging? It is killing people and it is cooking up at some point a vaccine resistant variants. So when people say no one’s safe until everyone’s safe, they just a slug. So we just need to get the TRIPS waiver done like two months ago as the critical first steps that we can get more vaccines, tests and treatments made around the world and end the damn pandemic,
You were just talking about the Delta variant. We’ve talked about the threat of variants in the past. And that’s been one of the things we’ve been saying about the TRIPS waiver that it would help prevent them from emerging and spreading in the first place. Now we’re seeing the reality. The Delta variant is obviously threatening to bring about a new round of mask mandates and lockdowns in the US and elsewhere. Can you talk a bit more about the issue of variants and the TRIPS waiver?
So here’s the deal. Variants emerge naturally out of viruses, but they need a place to be created. So the virus has to be replicating, that’s when you get variants. That’s where you get mutations. And if there are vast numbers of people who are infected, if there are raging outbreaks, it doesn’t just kill tens of millions of people who do not need to be losing their lives at this point, because there is a vaccine, even if the vaccine like with the Delta variant can’t stop an infection, it’s proving to keep people from being hospitalized or from dying. Most of the world is now in the face of huge third wave, raging outbreaks, and just not being covered here. So the horrors that we saw in India, that’s right now in Indonesia, that has been in Peru and Nepal and Pakistan, it is all over Africa. People are dying, and they have no vaccine, they have no treatments, and they’re totally unprotected. And in the midst of all of that, death, destruction, economic wreckage, new variants are also breeding. And the reason why is the virus is trying to make itself better, stronger, more likely to spread and continue on. So these Greek letters, now we’ve heard about lambda, they are four significant variants that have basically been developed because there have been outbreaks where the virus can mutate. And then the new version can spread. And as we saw with Delta, if it’s much more infectious, it just takes over. And so we practically greedily thinking just about that handful of countries have vaccines, we the privileged to have vaccines have equal interests as the person who doesn’t have them in the entire world getting vaccinated. Because as long as there are raging outbreaks anywhere, there are going to be variants until there’s a variant that literally gets all the way around the vaccine makes you really ill, kills people at the same numbers, and then we’re going to be on global lockdown again and back to scratch. So whether you’re motivated by the self-interest of not getting back to that situation, or you are horrified by the prospect of all these needless deaths, or it’s a combination, it is in everyone’s interests in the battle of vaccines versus variance, to get enough vaccines to wipe out the hot spots where massive new variants will develop and spread worldwide.
And I haven’t met many people who are not upset when they hear about this stuff, what needs to happen now, you know, what can get us out of this mess?
So at this point, I think the only thing that is going to change the circumstances is if people in the developed countries who’ve been privileged to have the vaccines and who now are the seat of Europe blocking the waiver, and the US not leading strongly enough to get the waiver. People in the rich countries need to reactivate the campaigning that, for instance, in the United States led to this amazing outcome of having the US for the first time in history, put people’s health and global health ahead of Big Pharma. People did that. The President obviously has a strong moral compass in his Catholic social justice, faith-based value of caring for people’s lives around the world. That is for sure with the president. But amongst many different things that were clamoring for attention, many crises, it was public attention and demand that helped make this wave or something, then in May, with all the other things demanding a president’s time the President supported, and we’re just gonna have to gear up another campaign at the same level, because a lot of other things are sucking up a lot of the oxygen in the room. And people in the White House, people across the country need to basically have this rise back up. And then sadly, I think the Delta variant is part of how that’s going to happen anyway. But you know, as we’re thinking about what can make a difference, the answer is not, “Oh, we all should get a booster.” The answer is we need to get that third shot that we will be taking unless you’re super immune compromised super all there’s some real reason you need it, that needs to go into an arm and someone in one of those countries where there no vaccines, and then we need to make a ton more vaccines. That’s the bottom line. There are three ways this can happen. This is not rocket science. This is a question of people power. Step one. on leash the intellectual property, get the barriers out of the way. That is the waiver of the WTO rules. Simply get rid of these barriers temporarily so that it is allowed around the world to make more of the vaccines, treatments and tests. Number two technology transfer. What does that mean? It means the difference between someone giving me the piece of paper and saying legally, okay, here’s the IP waiver. Here’s a list of ingredients and you have the right now to take my information that previously was under monopoly control, and you can do it too. But he was cooked anything with the recipe knows listening gradients isn’t sufficient you need the how you do it, what is the order of it, what you stir with what where does the egg beater come in? And so the technology transfer is that part of the recipe, where it says here is how you make, for instance, these mRNA vaccines, which actually are the easiest to scale up, because they don’t require the enormous specialized like vats that you need to brew certain kinds of virus based viral injections. units in your chemistry, you need clean manufacturing could be in a computer chip factory, it could be in another pharmaceutical factory, but you need the technology. So that’s a matter of being able to do that as Moderna’s chief scientists said is getting lines up in three to four months, not taking a year to reverse engineer how the hell you put the ingredients together. So number one TRIPS waiver, liberate the intellectual property. Number two, to speed up the production technology transfer. And by the way, the US government paid a lot of money to Moderna to Pfizer, to J&J. And there is, particularly with Moderna, even government patents in the vaccine. So there is leverage the Biden administration needs to exercise it is basically to say, guys, we’ll even compensate you for some of this, but you just have to share the know-how. And then number three is just a good old cash money to basically scale up the manufacturing. And what is clear is this has to happen in hubs around the world, we don’t have the capacity and make it out here and ship it there. Besides the fact, we all know how that will go. As soon as there is a real scare here, no one is going to be willing to send the stuff made here or there. So yeah, we need to increase production here both for more capacity for our own use. And then we can make some more and send some more. But there needs to be production capacity around the world. And the good news is and every part of the world there are companies that could do it. Some people say at this moment, there are 2 billion doses not being made were the IP liberated and the technology transferred, that could be online in the matter of months. But even more production needs to be set up. And so for instance, Public Citizen did a study, and for $25 billion, 8 billion more doses could be constructed by either retrofitting existing facilities, or adding new lines to existing clean manufacturing facilities, which again, that’s all you need for mRNA. You don’t need the huge vats, etc. and that work is going to take cash both for the construction, but actually the thing that’s the most expensive is just the inputs. So as Professor Joe Stiglitz the Nobel Prize winning economist says if you can get the IP barriers out of the way, the market can solve for a lot of this. So if you need more inputs to make mRNA vaccines, you need more lipids, you need more glass vials, as soon as you liberate the IP and get the technology transferred so actually, there is a demand for all that stuff. The market will solve for making more but but it’s going to take money. So wave the IP transfer, the technology, manufacturing that is funded and distributed around the world. That is how we get the hell out of this disaster. That is the only way we’re going to stop this pandemic. And the way to make that happen is only going to be people power. Pharma has no interest in this. The pharmaceutical companies are right now have a monopoly on these vaccines. They’re not just thinking about their greedy boosters for $150 a shot, which Pfizer’s literally said that’s what they’re going to do; not the 20 bucks a shot, that they’re now charging for pandemic pricing vaccines. It’s not just the vaccines where they hope to make the $150 booster shot, which is what Pfizer is on the record said they’re going to do and replace $150 shot with for the $20 pandemic pricing original vaccine. It’s also because these handful of companies want to corner the market, have a monopoly on this platform of mRNA with respect to cancer cures and AIDS cures and, and malaria, and the greed of thinking about these future profits over the prospect of tens of millions of people dying and never getting out of this cycle, this vicious cycle, which is profitable for Pharma to have a new variant that needs new boots so that they can then sell to the rich people. But that that is like that has no future for our world. So the one-two-three stops, people power is going to make it happen. And the very first thing I recommend is join all these organizations nationwide, that have sort of hit that basta point where it’s like enough already, the Biden administration needs to step it up. And in the US there’s a big petition drive and their visits with members of Congress has a lot of activity going on. And in Europe, led by the Germans same things going on basta, we’ve had it! The EU needs to get the hell out of the way starting with Germany and that transatlantic people power given the leadership’s already come from the developing countries and their governments. That’s how we’re going to get this done.
And if you check the summary of this podcast, there are links to some of the actions that Lori just described. 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.