Transcript and Link to Video of 2/18/21 Event Featuring:
Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill)
Mustaqeem De Gama, South Africa Counsellor to the WTO
Yuanqiong Hu, Senior Legal & Policy Advisor, Doctors Without Borders (MSF)
Lori Wallach (host), Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch
[Click on image to start video, transcript below]
Welcome everybody. I’m Lori Wallach from Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. Thank you very much for coming to a webinar about the World Trade Organization’s intellectual property rules that are now blocking global access to the technology to scale up COVID-19 vaccines, and treatments and diagnostic testing.
We have an amazing lineup of speakers today, Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, one of the most senior members of Congress and a leader on access to medicines for decades and the US Congress, Ambassador, Mustqeem De Gama. He’s the counselor to the WTO from the Republic of South Africa and a leader at the WTO on one of the solutions, the waiver of those rules at the WTO. And we are honored to have with us you on Yuanquiong Hu, who is a senior legal and policy adviser with Doctors Without Borders. We will turn to their presentations in just a second.
I want to flag how timely this event is. And thank everyone for joining us. Because as we’ve seen the news about the growing number of variants, it’s really clear, we are not going to be able to crush the COVID-19 crisis anywhere – unless people everywhere can get vaccines, can get diagnostic tests and can get treatments.
Right now the World Trade Organization is proving an obstacle to scaling up the kind of production that is necessary to come overcome the shortages we see everywhere. And the Trump administration was the leader of blocking an initiative by South African and India to temporarily waive those WTO intellectual property rules. So far, the Biden administration hasn’t changed that position, but they are new to the scene. We’re going to update everyone on the details. And we’re going to talk about action plans. And the first thing we’re going to do is hear very quickly from some of our partners from around the world. Ryan, please start the video. [INTL WTO Trips video plays] Thank you to our international partners. And now it’s my honor to introduce Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky. She is a Democrat from the ninth District of Illinois and famous around the world for her leadership most recently during the renegotiation of NAFTA to ensure that trade agreements don’t undermine affordable access to medicines. Congresswoman Schakowsky?
Rep. Schakowsky 04:31
Thank you so much, Lori. It’s just a joy to be able to work with you and to rely on your expertise and input and making good things happen. I want to just actually repeat in almost the same words the way you spoke before, we must make vaccines available to everyone everywhere, if we are going to crush the virus anywhere. And that’s the stakes that are so high right now. It’s actually quite embarrassing, but not surprising that, at least in the past that the United States before this new administration, that the United States would back up the intellectual property rights of pharmaceutical companies that want to continue to profit from this pandemic, as Lori said, we had an experience with that, when we were negotiating the trade agreement with Canada, and Mexico — and Big Pharma wanted to build into that legislation a 10 year exclusivity on some of their drugs, so that they could keep the prices, the prices high, we managed to get it out of that agreement.
Our goal right now is to get the now the Biden administration to change the policy of the United States, which has rounded up some other countries, rich countries, to join us. I am very, very optimistic that we’re going to be able to do that. I want you to know that we have drafted a letter to the president of the United States that we’re going to circulate and hopefully have lots of signatures to send to ask him to change the U.S. opposition to the TRIPS waiver.
As you know, getting the waiver is important: It would lift the intellectual property barriers and allow countries to locally manufacturer COVID-19 diagnostics, treatments and vaccines, thereby increasing timely access, especially in developing countries. We’ve also experienced in the past when the United States and the fire Big Pharma did not help with HIV AIDS, which ended up being a tremendous epidemic, especially in Africa. So the fate of humanity right now, in many ways is riding on this waiver. And certainly the ability to crush the virus in a time that is so important. And Lori pointed out with the variants that are developing, time is of the essence right now.
I want to thank our representatives that are here with me today. And thank South Africa and India, for taking the lead on this. But certainly bringing in, as we just saw, so many more allies that are going to fight for this. We’re talking about I believe, Lori, you told me 100, over 100 countries now are on our team. And very few really, on the on the other side of the issue.
So, we also had a meeting yesterday of the Democratic Caucus. And I had an opportunity at the end to bring up this issue. And I am very pleased to tell you that speaker Nancy Pelosi chimed in at the very close of this meeting, to say how important it was that we allow this waiver to go through – that the United States not stand in the way – emphasizing that this is a global pandemic. And, of course, we now, as hasn’t been for the last four years, have rejoined the world in so many different ways – in climate change, with the UN, also working with the WTO. Finally, now that we have a new president.
The TRIPS waiver is really key to the end of the pandemic. The United States has a lot of reasons that we should support it. You know, we’re putting a lot of money right now into encouraging travel to the United States of America. Billions of dollars to help the airline industry, the hospitality industry, wanting to we encourage people to come in here to come here, which will be impossible if we don’t address this as an international crisis. And so I really do believe with if we stick together, and I also just got a call today from one of my colleagues talking about Latin America, and the importance of supporting this waiver, getting rid of the obstacles that are there, so that our neighbors just to the south of us, also are going to be able to have access to affordable medications.
Without these interventions, we’re going to see a prolonged pandemic, we’re going to see lives lost. You’ve seen already well over 460,000 Americans who have died from this pandemic. But there’s a new team in town here in the United States. And I feel that we’re going to get the support that we need from our democratic leadership in the Congress of the United States, and also from the president of the United States.
So I am anxious to work closely with you to make this happen. That together, we can work together and save millions of lives, that would be unnecessarily lost if the United States were to maintain this position of siding with the intellectual property rights of the pharmaceutical companies. No, this is an immoral decision. It is a deadly decision. And I believe it is one that we can successfully combat.
So, thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I look forward to your suggestions for the strategies that we can employ together. So that we can move ahead quickly, with ending this threat right now to the waiver. So I thank you and I yield back.
Thank you very much Congresswoman Schakowsky. And for all the people who want to chime in to her challenge about brainstorming strategy and to the reporters and others who have questions: Please start tweeting, start sending through texts, start sending through comments, if you’re on Zoom or if you’re on Facebook, your questions and comments. There’s a whole crew that’s going to put those together so the stellar team can answer your questions – as many as possible after we hear all the presentations. So start sending in questions.
And now we are going to shift to two folks who are on the ground in Geneva at the forefront of the fight that Congresswoman Schakowsky is describing. And given a lot of people who are watching are from the U.S. I just want to underscore many people in the U.S. are hopeful that the administration will improve COVID-19 vaccine production and development and deployment here. But, there’s going to be no end to the public health disaster or related economic disaster unless people in the developing world can get access to the vaccines, which some very respected studies say could lag until 2024 unless production is increased enormously.
So, without further ado, I have the honor of introducing one of the people who came up with a solution to boosting that production. The counselor to South Africa at the World Trade Organization. South Africa along with India has proposed a waiver of the WTO rules that now basically keep the intellectual property – the formulas, the know-how, the manufacturing technology needed to scale up production – within a steely web of control by pharma. Please welcome Mustaqeem De Gama, the counselor for the Republic of South Africa at the World Trade Organization. Please, ambassador.
Mustaqeem De Gama 14:18
Lori, thank you very much. Let me send a warm welcome from Geneva to everyone in the United States. And I would want to acknowledge the Congresswoman for her very inspirational address just now. I certainly also want to thank everyone, for giving us the opportunity to just once again remind the world how interconnected we are. I recall more than a year ago when the virus first started circulating internationally. No one really took it seriously. And, of course as we as we know now, the death toll internationally has continued to creep up.
So, what I wanted to say right at the start is that being a proponent for this waiver proposal, this waiver proposal is about justice. It’s about saving lives, it’s about enabling, those who have capacity to ramp up production, and to suspend certain intellectual property rights for a certain period of time, until we are able to get this particular virus under control. And so the core messages that have been said, that has been put out so far is exactly correct, we can only do so if we act collectively, we can only do so if we all are vaccinated, because as we say, no one is safe until everyone is safe.
And at the end of the day, we see that intellectual property rights constitute a very substantial barrier for us to achieve this global goal of having people vaccinated. In the TRIPS Council, we are currently still discussing how we can reach common ground with various delegations. And as would be, I wanted to say that there are still some differences that we have to overcome. But there is one global message that is starting to emerge. And that is that we need better systems to react to instances of global pandemics. And all of us have come to that particular realization. I think in the end, what we need to try and understand is how all of this impacts us collectively. The audience, I believe, is mainly US based. And so maybe it is it would be good just to emphasize a few points.
The first point that I wanted to make today is that if we are able to pass this waiver, this will not only be a shot in the arm of every patient that needs it, it will also be a shot in the arm of the world economy. The Congresswoman has already indicated the efforts on the side of Congress to pass measures to ensure that travel can restart that hospitality can open up and certainly this is also a concern for us in the developing world. A study was commissioned by the International Chamber of Commerce Research Foundation, and they have found that the global economy stands to lose staggering $9.2 trillion if we are not able to bring this pandemic under control.
And at this point, we are faced with two possible scenarios. The first scenario is we continue not to have access to a vaccine or effective vaccines that is available to everyone. The consequence of this is that many of us, even though we may have vaccines, and we may start vaccinating our populations, in the meanwhile, the virus is busy mutating. And these mutations have emerged and there are indications that they undermine the efficacy of vaccines that have already been developed. And so many of us in the developing world understand that it cannot just be a case that rich countries can buy up all vaccine production, vaccinate the populations and expect the problem to go away because these mutated viruses will not respect borders. They will not respect any creed or color. They will still affect our ability to return to normalcy.
So from that point of view, if we are able to procure vaccines, we as developing countries can also open up our borders. Because in the end, what will happen is if we do not have access to vaccines, we would have to maintain the strict lockdown requirements. And our economies are essentially characterized by informal arrangements, which means that if you don’t work, you don’t really earn and if you don’t earn you do not eat. And the same with our economies. Many of us are reliant on tourism, many of us are reliant on the export of our primary products. Until and unless we have effective mechanisms in place to ensure that those incomes can be procured.
We will have an escalation of poverty, the IMF and World Bank have estimated that a total of 600 million more people will fall below the poverty line as a result of COVID-19. This reverses 10 years of steady progress that we’ve achieved under the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals]. And more than 100 million people will return to absolute levels of poverty.
And so from this point of view, it is absolutely necessary, essential that we all cooperate to ensure that we have equitable access, we believe our waiver is the way to go because it ensures that we all have access and that we all can return to normalcy in the shortest possible time. I’m going to leave it at that and I’d be happy to return to more focus questions. Thank you.
Thank you very much Ambassador De Gama. And as we’re about to turn to our colleague from Doctors Without Borders, I just wanted to underscore for the US audience, what Ambassador De Gama just said, which is what congresswoman Schakowsky said: In the face of vaccine apartheid, the waiver is the morally right thing to do. But in addition, as Ambassador De Gama is making clear, as a matter of us in the United States actually being able to tackle the COVID crisis, with variants mutating rapidly, we will not be able to recover health-wise or economically unless there is access to vaccines, to treatments and to testing for people around the world. And as we’re about to hear, there simply is not enough being made to go around in the time we have to effectively fight this crisis. So it is my honor to introduce Yuanqiong Hu, who is the senior policy and legal adviser at what in the U.S. we call Doctors Without Borders, and the rest of the world calls Médecins Sans Frontières, MSF – Doctors Without Borders. She has written some of the best stuff about how intellectual property rules in general and the WTO’s Trade Related Intellectual Property agreement rules are undermining scaling up that production. And for folks who joined late, “TRIPS”, the abbreviation you’re tripping over is those WTO IP rules. I recommend Yuan’s writing on this if you want to dig in deeper. Yuanqiong Hu, please tell us about what can be done.
Yuanqiong Hu 22:42
Thank you very much, Lori. And thank you, it’s my honor and I feel very humbled to have this opportunity to share some of our works with everyone. And thank you so much for the inspirational speech made by the Congresswoman and counselor. So, I will briefly share my screen and explain very briefly as a medical humanitarian organization, why we are supporting this process in the middle of the pandemic.
Doctors Without Borders, the organization I am working with, has been following the issue of intellectual property and access to medicines for more than two decades. So at the beginning of the pandemic, we already were very worried about how the industry is going to manage the IP and technology so that we will not end up in the kind of tragedy that MSF had repeatedly seen in the past epidemics, such as HIV-AIDS, and other diseases affecting developed countries, such as hepatitis C, TB. However, we were very disappointed because there’s no enlightenment – anything different about the industry approach of managing IP.
So we are very encouraged to see the waiver proposal put forward. For us it provides a very unique opportunity for world leaders and countries to come together to fulfil the moral obligation and making sure IP are substantively not standing in the way for country to help themselves and help each other.
So I will quickly use the slides here to outline some of the common arguments from countries that are not supporting the waiver and that think the waiver would not have added value to help us end this pandemic together, So, the common argument, for instance, from many people against the waiver is that “IP isn’t the issue.” They argue that the problem is ramping up production and supply. While ramping up supply is completely essential, it is also wrong to say that IP isn’t the issue. There has been significant evidence since the pandemic and we have documented this in a number of our technical briefings: IP is posing existing and emerging barriers to ensuring access to medicines, vaccines and other medical tools can be available and accessible in an equitable and universal manner.
The therapeutics have a lot of IP attached to it, and with very little possibility to get open licensing from industry. On vaccines, there’s a very complex IP landscape and managing the IP by the industry so far has been quite limited. From MSF past experience, the IP on vaccines has effectively blocked development and production of some of the essential lifesaving vaccines that are for children in developing countries. So, it is totally not really correct to claim IP isn’t a barrier when we are looking at a very looming situation when we actually need more vaccine in a short period of time.
There’re also arguments that IP is essential for innovation in COVID. Well, in reality as we are seeing an entirely different rationale now: The rapid delivery of research and development in COVID is really a result of global collective efforts driven by public funding. And, and the industry has benefited so much from the public efforts. So, in the pandemic, it is totally, not really acceptable for all of the benefits to be concentrated on one industry.
There’s also another claim saying, okay, we have companies’ voluntary mechanism. And then there’s flexibility in TRIPS that countries can use so we don’t need a waiver at all. However, the evidence has proven the contrary. When we see the voluntary licenses, used by companies, they have proven to be very limited and restrictive, even for vaccines. So we haven’t seen any single open licensing and open sharing of technology that could enable the leveraging of existing capacity in different countries.
I will skip a lot of slides here. But I will share with Lori. So in conclusion, we heard a lot of arguments. But then from our experience of working in this field for quite a long time, what we see is really multiple barriers from the structural, normative, political, and practical levels. Then compelling us to call for strong support from all countries to make sure this waiver proposal will deliver legal certainty and deliver a kind of a landmark change so that we would have more opportunities, especially in developing countries, to manage this pandemic successfully. So I will stop here and happy to continue the dialogue with you.
Yuanqiong Hu thank you very much. And ladies and gentlemen, we are now going to shift to the Q&A part of our webinar. So please, if you haven’t done so text, chat, or if you’re on Facebook Live, comment. Send questions to us. If you are on Zoom, please put it into the chat. And as we’re getting those queued up, I’m just going to say one additional thing for folks who are not as expert on the IP – the intellectual property – issues. Which I wasn’t until I started digging deeply into how trade agreements impose this big pharma protectionism. So right now, thanks to rules like in the World Trade Organization’s Trade Related Intellectual Property agreement, countries all over the world are required — despite having invested hundreds of billions in creating the vaccines — they’re required to give monopoly protections under the WTO rules to the pharmaceutical companies who then control how much and where the needed medicines are produced. So we don’t have enough to go around.
And, as Yuan was just saying, it’s not sort of simple IP issues, like it was way back when there was a patent on an egg-based vaccine. For the mRNA vaccines, they’re thickets of IP rights. There are dozens of patents but then there are also copyrights on the computer programs needed to produce the vaccines. And there’s technological know-how. And there’s manufacturing know-how. Some of that is subject to trade secrets protections and other rules. So in order to be able to gear up, we need a broad waiver that covers that whole web of intellectual property rights that big pharma right now has that’s constricting the ability of countries around the world to make these meds. Because as the questions are now coming in, I will say one more thing. There are many countries that now have the capacity. It’s not a matter of starting from scratch. If the technical technological know-how is shared, we don’t have to wait until 2024. It could be done if the know-how is being shared.
So, I now see we have a question from Merrill Goozner, a news reporter: Has any vaccine maker made its vaccine available to South Africa or to Indian generic companies? And if any have under what terms? I suspect that Ambassador De Gama is the first person who might know that and anyone else dive in.
Mustaqeem De Gama 31:34
Yes, thank you, Lori, that’s a very important question. One of the issues that Yuanqiong raised in her presentation was the use of voluntary licenses. And these are essential contractual mechanisms, that producers in the pharma or at least in, in any type of industry, but in the pharmaceutical industry, the rights holders, the originators will enter into agreements where they set the terms for production. So who produces how much they produce, what quantity, of course, and then where that production can be utilized. And just very shortly, yes, Johnson&Johnson has entered into a manufacturing agreement with a South African company called Aspin Pharmaceuticals. The agreement is not publicly available. However, from what we understand of the arrangement, Aspin will produce something in the region of three or 400 million doses. Only 9% of those doses would be available to South Africa. The rest would be supplied in relation to orders that would have been received by Johnson&Johnson. Johnson&Johnson has the sole discretion as to how those particular doses will be distributed. So yes, and I think Yuan can also come in here. It’s the same, for example, with the Serum Institute in India, and a few other countries. So, the discretion as to how these vaccines are distributed, and the territorial limitations are all part and parcel of these licensing agreements. Lori, I hope that sort of covers the base of the question.
Thank you very much. Yuan, would you like to add?
Yuanqiong Hu 33:46
I think, Counselor De Gama answered the question very comprehensively. So maybe one example we know, is an agreement signed with a Brazil producer. But then, again, I mean, we are also facing a situation in a pandemic where there’s an overall lack of transparency on those agreements. So there’s no full visibility of how or the kind of typical terms and conditions in full text that’s enabling manufacturing with a very limited disclosure of the agreement we also see, as Counselor De Gama mentioned, that the geographic coverage is very limited, because it only allows the supply to Brazil. So, if we anticipate maybe there is some capacity in the region, Brazil can help other countries. That kind of term would not allow Brazil to do so for their neighbor even if, after preparation and so on Brazil can produce for themselves a little for that amount. They are not able to help their neighbors. So the neighbors who may not have the same level of capacity are still going to have to wait for the limited supply from the International producers.
That’s very clarifying. So, basically, unless some of these corporate rights of the pharmaceutical companies to decide how much is produced and where it goes our way through the trips waiver, you can have production in South Africa, India and South Africa in India still will not have sufficient supply, which actually gets to a second question, which is sort of asked in two parts.
Rep. Schakowsky 35:35
Lori, if I could just chime in on this one for a second. I mean, the last thing we want to do is to now create competition among the poorer countries that may feel themselves forced into these kinds of deals that exclude as, as Yuanqiong Hu just pointed out among then among those countries and even neighbors, that would that would be very, that’s an unfortunate outcome.
A very good contribution. Thank you. And pardon me for stepping on not asking you, Congresswoman. That’s a very key point. And along those lines on the treatment front, one of Yuan’s reports talks about how the private still-secret licensing agreement for Remdesivir has resulted in half the world’s countries not getting access. So, there are very concrete examples of how not having a waiver affects the treatments, the vaccines and the diagnostic tests. And the second question, first part of it is from Stephanie Burgos, who is from Oxfam. And she says, “Thank you so much for the very good and informative presentations. Can you please elaborate a bit more on what you see as the biggest obstacles to getting WTO approval of the TRIPS waiver?” And that question, I think we should combine with name-not-listed but a reporter who asks: The new head of the World Trade Organization seems to be focusing on distracting away from the importance of the WTO waiver, as she is focused on her previous work at COVAX. COVAX is a fund that is committed to getting vaccines for the 20%, one fifth of the world’s population, that’s most vulnerable. So health care workers, older people. As good as COVAX can be, number one: if there isn’t more vaccine produced, they can’t distribute it. But number two: they’re only planning to cover one out of five people with what they’re doing. And so the question is, why is the new head of WTO focusing on that, versus focusing on the business at home, which is getting the WTO waiver? So those two things bundled together? And please, any of you, jump in?
Rep. Schakowsky 38:08
Again, I think it’s the ambassador who may know better the internal workings that may color the outcome.
Mustaqeem De Gama 38:21
Congresswoman, yes. Let me try to maybe traverse the landscape here. And let me start with the second part of this question. So yes, we have a new Director General, who has indicated that, at least in the initial stages of her tenure, she would concentrate on at least the linkages that she’s familiar with. And I think the Congresswoman made a very important point. Lori, you too, that the way that does not invalidate multilateral approaches, we’ve always said that it is necessary for us to collaborate in order to defeat COVID-19. individual actions by individual countries will not achieve this. We’ve seen this with rich countries buying up a lot of production. And now, these companies that over promised under deliver, and this has further ramifications because not only are these countries affected, but also the institutional mechanisms meant to serve the interests of the poor and the disenfranchised, even COVAX now is not able to reach the targets, the miniscule targets as you pointed out, in the timeframe that they indicated that they would.
A lot of the supplies would have been prioritized for COVAX and are reprioritized for rich countries, who’ve hedged their bets, and are now either receiving it or have been bumped up this list, or this waiting list as for now. And so it’s understandable that the new DG will focus on those particular relationships. We have publicly said that we welcome these relationships, but they are insufficient. Maybe a good starting point. But they are insufficient to address a lot of the institutional shortcomings that we see at a global level. And so whereas we could welcome that approach, we think it is not sufficient to address many of the issues that we’ve been raising for the last 25 years.
As we would have heard today, as well, the issue of access has a long history. And coming from South Africa I just wanted to say personally, having lost friends and families and seen many communities devastated because we could not get access to modes of treatment, left very deep scars in our country. And it is natural, that we would take up this fight once again to ensure that this injustice does not happen again.
And so from that point of view, I just wanted to emphasize that the barriers that we see to access are long standing. These have been around for many of the previous pandemics. Not only HIV and AIDS, but the avian flu, h1n1. We’ve seen the same irrational responses by governments: Let’s quickly get as much of the supply that is available. Let’s try and sort out ourselves. And let’s forget about the rest of the world. But this doesn’t work. Because we live in an interconnected world. We live in a world where we are becoming more interdependent on each other. And so you and I are connected in many, many ways that we don’t fully understand at this point in time. And COVID-19 is showing this to us.
Because if we allow this virus to mutate over and over and over again, it grows more clever. It evades the mechanisms that we’ve put in place. And ultimately, even if we devise foolproof plans to vaccinate entire populations in North America or in Europe, those plans are laid to waste because the new forms of virus are resistant to those vaccinations. And so we are all connected, whether we like it or not.
I also wanted to indicate the part of the structural barriers would have been the ability of countries to invoke so called TRIPS flexibilities. So intellectual property rights are not absolute. Under certain circumstances, they may be waived. They may be rebalanced. Article seven and eight of the TRIPS Agreement really does that it says, protect the rights of holders reward them for the innovation. But there are limits to this. There are limits in various situations, including our when public health is under threat.
And we are in such a situation we have seen governments locking down and tire economies sequestering people in their homes. What is the problem with intellectual property rights? Why are intellectual property rights so special, given the fact that a lot of the innovation that we see being used today came from government funding. Government funding enabled the collaboration that we have seen. A generous sharing of knowledge, of information, of sequence data has enabled us to keep an eye on the evolution of this virus. And so sharing is one of the mechanisms that we really have to try to promote.
And so from that point of view, and in just finishing up the response, the structural barriers to the access to COVID-19 products are essentially historic. They continue and include the inability of countries to invoke these flexibilities. But even if any country wanted to do so right now, it wouldn’t be able to do that because the TRIPS flexibilities were designed for very specific circumstances. It envisages a situation where a country is affected by a particular health problem or situation or a region. It never envisaged that the whole world would be engulfed in a pandemic of this nature. And as a result, the action by only one country by a group of countries will not lead to sustainable longterm solutions.
And so from that point of view, the barriers to access are essentially still contained in the very instrument that we depend upon to ensure that we have access to what we need. And so from that point of view, I would say that this could be a very long conversation. But just these few points that I’ve offered, now, I should be able to clarify why it is difficult to access these particular technologies, medicines, whether we’re talking about vaccines, whether we’re talking of basic things such as personal protective equipment. Many people are still dying in developing countries, because frontline workers just do not have access to masks. Do not have access to proper gloves, for example. Our laboratories just do not have access to the right equipment to test and trace for infections. And so this exposes us because we are not able to see what impact the measures that we are putting in place would have on the containment of COVID-19. So Lori, I leave it at that, but happy to revert to any other issues.
Very powerful. And thank you. And I want to invite the Congresswoman, are you on to add anything before we go to the next question?
Rep. Schakowsky 46:38
All I would say is that we have to decide who makes the decision about this question facing the United States right now. And I would argue that because of the billions of dollars of taxpayer money that has gone into the development of these drugs, that we can’t just leave it to the these big pharma companies who normally spend more on advertising than they do on actual research and development anyway, and that we want to engage the public now, in making a decision. Do you want to help crush this virus worldwide? And save yourself? And is it a moral decision to say that you should get the bulk of it, while our country, our country, in your name, is preventing others around the world from getting it and therefore endangering us as well?
Yuanqiong Hu 47:39
Okay. Lori, thank you. I will just briefly add, in our observation, the biggest obstacle now – for the first question – the biggest obstacle for countries really sitting down and moving forward in this waiver negotiation is political will. The political will of countries who are against it to really face the reality that we are all in. And change the narrative and change their mindset. Because now we hear a circular and repeated discussion about questions of evidence, manufacturer capacity. We have been reviewing some of the public document that are put on the WTO website that document how the negotiations are actually happening. The questions and answers have been put into these documents. After reviewing all of the documents, we think the proponents – the developing country – have addressed nearly every single question that the opponents have put to them. At the same time, they repeatedly asked the same questions. So for us this is a delaying tactic, rather than genuinely facing the challenge. So political will is the biggest obstacle to move this process forward.
Thank you very much. And actually, that is a perfect segway to the last question we have time for on our webinar. Folks, there have been lots of great questions. If you look in the chat, or you look in Facebook Live, we have posted the names of our field director and organizers so you could actually get connected to the campaign and or get more of your questions answered. But this one I’m going to pose for everybody because we’re running out of time. Well, the first one is on the flexibilities issue. And it comes from Simon Lester, who’s with the Cato Institute, and I’m going to quickly answer it and then go on to the second one.
It’s an interesting important point and everyone else can dive in if they want. What he is saying is basically about the flexibilities, especially given the exceptions in the WTO rules and also the state of the WTO enforcement system: Why don’t countries just go ahead and do what they want to do because the WTO is kind of a mess and nothing will happen. And the answer to that is at this moment, the WTO is enforcement is not so much the issue as what these companies will do in domestic courts to try and get injunctions to stop, because the governments need the flexibilities to change their domestic laws, without violating their international obligations. So the countries need to change the domestic laws. So that actually the law does not provide a basis for filing for an injunction domestically to stop production. And example we have seen already in the US with a joint Korean/US pharmaceutical company deal. They signed an agreement to make one of the COVID vaccines. Now, they are suing each other and they have injunctions and the production got delayed. And those are companies that actually tried to work together. So the likelihood of getting out of that steel web of IP without a waiver is extremely remote, given all the complicated pieces, which then gets to the final question from Pauline Lucina. from American Friends Service Committee, the Quakers’ Africa rep. The question is: Since this is a race to save humanity, is there any way the world can simply overturn the WTO, IP protections quickly? Who can do that? Which governments can influence the WTO? What is the role of civil society? What is the role of the new head of the WTO.
This question boils down to what are the most important things people can be doing in different countries to get the emergency temporary waiver that South Africa and India have called for of the WTO IP rules, so production can get scored up. And I invite all of our speakers,
Rep. Schakowsky 51:51
Let me just say, as the organizer in me, I would say, first of all, it’s the United States of America that could make a big difference in absolutely allowing this, this waiver and taking away the opposition. Because it’s the United States that has rounded up some other countries to support that.
I think now we need to make sure that ordinary citizens are aware of the danger that is lurking ahead of us if the United States continues along this line. And that we work with our new President Biden, to really see the consequences of this. I think I feel optimistic about that.
But it is going to take I think, a mobilization in this in our country, in the United States, to really change the dynamic here to change the rules. And, I think we don’t have that much time. I think the other thing is that this needs to happen quickly, so that these variants don’t have a chance to multiply and because so many people are waiting to be saved. And by the way, the distribution of the COVID vaccines has been kind of a mess, even in the United States. We have to sharpen our own game. But we certainly have to extend the opportunities to the rest of the world.
Thank you, Congresswoman. Any last thoughts, Ambassador De Gamma and Yuanqiong Hu?
Mustaqeem De Gama 53:38
Lori, thanks very much. I think I would echo much of what has been said by the Congresswoman. In Geneva, we are excited to work with the Biden administration. So reaching out across the aisle is going to be important to understand how we can work together to ensure that we have an outcome in the shortest possible time. I think as Yuan has indicated, the biggest obstacle so far has been the political will by governments to cooperate to find common solutions to a global problem.
We believe that we have made some strides in the last three months to understand how better we can discuss this particular problem. But we need to scale this up very quickly. The longer we take to reach an agreement, the more people will die.
What can civil society do? What can ordinary citizens do? Well, our governments are responsible for our health and our safety. They need to take positions that are pro public health. They need to take measured positions and be responsible for how they spend our hard and tax dollars. So we need to hold our governments responsible, we also need to require the utmost transparency when money is spent, we need to know who it goes to for what purpose. This is a constitutional right of every citizen. This is a constitutional right, of every organization that is interested in democracy that works for everyone, and not just for a few.
And so from that point of view, COVID-19 cannot be or at least has become an election issue. Many, many countries are now entering into election periods and governments are being assessed on their performance in managing this particular virus. And so if I, if I have any last words, is that exercise your democratic rights, to hold your government accountable, and to ensure that all of us are able to enjoy the democratic rights that are guaranteed not only under our national constitutions, but also the global charter and the United Nations. And ensure that human rights matter more than profits. Our lives matter more than profits. And our access should not be based on our ability to pay? So in the end, we need to pressure our governments to do something. And the more information that we have available, the better for that. Thank you, Lori.
Here here, I’m ready to go the ramparts myself. Inspiring. And Yuan last thoughts?
Yuanqiong Hu 56:55
Okay, so I really have not much to add, after this powerful concluding remark, by Counselor De Gama. And the Congresswoman. So I will say just maybe one additional point related to the flexibility and the role of civil society. That’s absolutely right. Every country still has the right to use the TRIPS flexibilities. Although these are not sufficient in a pandemic.
And, we also wanted to note, the industry narrative hasn’t changed. Our colleague has pointed out, for instance, that the industry group has submitted the new submission to the new USTR on the Special 301 review process. Countries who have adopted flexibility in this pandemic, by issuing a compulsory license on medicines, such as Russian and Hungry, have been put on the industry’s watch lists for bad behavior for IP. So I think we really need to be alerted and be really clear, what is the struggle of power at stake where the industry will not give regard to the struggling of the people and the government. And we need to really step in.
As Counselor De Gama said: It really is a time to prioritize people’s life over corporate profits. And it is a time to test humanity. It is unprecedented history that we are writing together. So for countries and people – everybody here in this webinar – we have a huge mission. Civil society organizations globally have been trying very hard, pushing every single corner to make sure that Global Access becomes a reality in this pandemic. And we’re happy to stand together with many colleagues here and to keep fighting. Thank you.
Thank you. Thank you, everyone, for listening. Thank you to our speakers, three things for dispatch, because as you just heard, we are going to write the history together. We need to get it right. Or we can put profits before people which, as Ambassador De Gama said, no way no how. As Congresswoman Schakowsky said, we have got to fight against the clock for what is morally right.
Number one, go to tradewatch.org for more info. If any of this is confusing, as it is sometimes is at first, we have a fact sheet of four pages that boils it down with links. You can also there sign on to a petition that a lot of us groups are doing to President Biden. it’s respectful, but it basically says what Congresswoman Schakowsky said: We desperately need you to get on the right side of history and switch this bad position. Because of the power of the US, as rep Schakowsky said, make the U.S. switching positions huge.
Number two, go to citizen.org to our Access to Medicines group. They have lots of details as well as MSF’s website where you can see lots of Yuan’s reports down into the details of what’s a “TRIPS flexibility” and why it won’t work in this context, etc. Arm yourself with information to argue.
Number three, if you’re a representative of an organization, please get in touch with Ryan or Andy at Global Trade Watch to sign on to a big national U.S. organizational letter to the President about this issue.
And finally, everybody sounds like Congresswoman Schakowsky is once again going to take leadership getting her colleagues organized. So it sounds like pretty soon you’ll be needing to ask your members of Congress to join the leadership of Congressman Schakowsky on her letter, calling for a change in the U.S. position so that we can see a waiver of the intellectual property rules at the WTO and we will put people over profits and united together we will be able to crush COVID because if we’re not all safe, none of us are safe.
Thank you again to our speakers, Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, Counselor Mustaqueem De Gama. Yuanqiong Hu from Doctors Without Borders. Thank you all for participating. Thank you to our audience. And this is the end of our webinar.