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Podcast: U.S. Officials Are Blocking Global COVID-19 Vaccine Access at WTO

Rethinking Trade - Season 1, Episode 23

World Trade Organization (WTO) rules undermine access to COVID-19 vaccines and medicines. That’s why scores of countries are demanding that the WTO’s monopoly protections for pharmaceutical corporations be temporarily waived so COVID-19 vaccines and treatments can be produced worldwide. This is essential to ensure enough affordable doses to end the pandemic and save lives. But U.S. trade officials are blocking the waiver, insisting that even during this deadly global pandemic, Big Pharma profits should come first. The question is: Will this position change under a Biden administration?

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Transcribed by Sally King

Ryan: Welcome back to rethinking trade, where we don’t just talk about trade policy, we like to change it, and Ryan and I’m joined once again by our new house trade expert, Lori Wallach, the World Trade Organization is meeting, as we record this podcast, and one of the items on their agenda, it’s going to have a huge impact on the world’s access to COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. That’s because the WTO intellectual property rules were designed to protect the Big Pharma giants, not the people who need medicines to survive. Lori, could you tell us what is happening right now at the WTO? What trade related intellectual property rights are. And what they have to do with the covid 19 pandemic?

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 used to prove a drug is safe so that the generic manufacturers sometimes have to wait even longer. All of those kind 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 pharmaceutical firms they can charge any damn price they want for medicines. So in the face of having that imposed on 160 countries worldwide. Were all the least developed countries are required to have these very stringent monopoly protections for big pharmaceutical firms, a set of countries like 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 is 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 that 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 that it would be in violation of these WTO rules, and a country’s imperative to save lives with subject country to indefinite trade sanctions. So a developing country would have huge penalties billions of dollars put against its actual exports needed to keep this country going because they put people’s lives first. 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 1000s people were dying antiretroviral treatments were available, but they were so prohibitively expensive that throughout the developing world in Brazil and South Africa. People are 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 US or Europe with AIDS, which is basically the antiretrovirals would make it a treatable pill 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 rules, 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, for folks who remember, when Al Gore was running for president, people from amped up or falling around busting into his event screaming, “Greed kills.” That was a WTO trips case. That was the get them to back down the Clinton Administration on these attacks using WTO against HIV AIDS medicines. So what happens with the sanctions is practical. One of these WTO tribunals decides that some countries, 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 will 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 going to 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 US 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 US 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, 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, whomever is the President and the President’s top trade official the US Trade Representative decides the positions the United States would take at the World Trade Organization, the United States sits in a council it’s called the general council, 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 a handful of other countries who are the homes of the big pharmaceutical corporations to block this proposal if the US changes sides, something the bind administration could do without Congress again and then what it would look like is instructions go from the White House to the US representatives of the WTO in Geneva, and they go to that meeting which the next one right now the meeting, we’re going to say the wrong thing. The US is going to say the wrong thing. So when it needs to get in January, that General Counsel the US 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 is 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 of people 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, as the United States of America, to have a new position, about these kinds of farmer protections in trade agreements, they don’t belong there at all. It’s not just that the WTO rules should be waived but rather we 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’s the balances 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, you’re going to put people over profits to kind of 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, 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 to fight for fair or equitable trade policies.