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U.S. Supports Emergency WTO Waiver of Big Pharma Monopolies to Boost Vaccine Access

Public Citizen News / May-June 2021

By Mariana Lopez

This article appeared in the May/June 2021 edition of Public Citizen News. Download the full edition here.

As Public Citizen News goes to print, President Joe Biden and U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai just announced U.S. support for an initiative by 100 countries at the World Trade Organization (WTO) to temporarily waive intellectual property (IP) barriers to facilitate more production of COVID-19 vaccines globally. “This is a global health crisis and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures,” Tai announced.

Under Trump, the United States and a handful of other WTO members blocked negotiations on this waiver from even starting last fall. The Biden administration was handed the opportunity to reverse Trump’s self-defeating blockage. Big Pharma lobbied (and will continue to lobby) heavily against the waiver, while a mighty civil society coalition that Public Citizen helped build and lead waged an intensive campaign. The administration sided with the people over Big Pharma.

This was an enormous victory that sends a powerful signal to the world by breaking decades of U.S. trade officials’ active promotion of Big Pharma interests over public health. In collaboration with Public Citizen’s Access to Medicines division and Oxfam, Partners in Health, the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, Doctors Without Borders, Health GAP, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the nurses and teachers unions, Global Trade Watch campaigned to counter Big Pharma’s team of over 100 lobbyists trolling Capitol Hill and pressuring the U.S. to remain on the wrong side of this issue.

Now, it is critical that U.S. engagement in WTO negotiations leads to the fastest possible agreement on a waiver text that encompasses all health technologies needed to end the pandemic, including vaccines, test kits, treatments, medical equipment, and personal protective equipment. The pharmaceutical corporations want to protect their monopoly control of supply, in part, because as Pfizer briefed investors in March, they see great profit opportunities in producing annual boosters for sale at much higher prices in rich countries. Activists will continue to fight both domestically and globally to ensure that the scope of the negotiated waiver text does not only cover vaccines.

The WTO requires its 159 member nations to provide pharmaceutical firms certain monopoly rights in a text called the WTO’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property or “TRIPS.” These monopoly protections mean that pharmaceutical corporations control where vaccines, tests, and treatments are made and how much is produced.

This is significant because current production capacity can’t supply nearly enough vaccines, treatments, or diagnostic tests to meet global needs. Most in low- and middle-income countries will not get vaccinated until at least 2022, and those in the world’s poorest countries may have to wait until 2024 for mass immunization, if it happens at all. As we end the first third of the year, global vaccine production has not reached 1.5 billion doses, while 10–15 billion doses are needed. Creating greater supply capacity is critical, especially because COVID-19 vaccines may be like flu vaccines that must be given regularly, not a one-time shot.

While Public Citizen’s Access to Medicine program has been campaigning for the U.S. government to expand U.S. and international production capacity, including with an ambitious investment of $25 billion to meet global need, the Global Trade Watch program promoted another important part of the solution to these issues of capacity and global access. A temporary COVID-19 emergency waiver of some WTO TRIPS monopoly rights would help Global South producers, governments, and researchers gain access to technology to make vaccines, medicines, and tests to prevent, treat, and control COVID-19. The waiver was proposed by South Africa and India and supported by more than 100 WTO member countries, now including the United States. The scope of the waiver (whether it will cover more than vaccines) is to be negotiated, but the United State’s support of a waiver is a critical first step.

In every region of the world, there are firms with the capacity to produce vaccines, treatments, and tests and greatly increase supply if the formulas and technology are shared and international cooperation provided. By refusing to voluntarily contract with these firms or issue voluntary licenses to qualified firms so they invest in creating new production capacity, vaccine originators like Moderna and Pfizer are effectively blocking sufficient supply from being made. Johnson and Johnson (J&J) did arrange a contract with South Africa firm Aspen to make their vaccine, but for months required that 91% of the shots be sent for sale in Europe to fulfil J&J contracts there.

Beginning in January, GTW has built escalating pressure on the Biden administration to support the TRIPS Waiver:

Global vaccine apartheid could cost millions of lives, push tens of millions more into poverty and spawn mutated virus variants that evade vaccines. There can be no end to the public health disaster or economic crises anywhere if people in developing nations are not vaccinated. The latest announcement from the United States is something to celebrate, but the work does not stop here.