- Over 400 Number of U.S. civil society groups that signed Public Citizen’s organizational sign-on letter, sent to President Biden on February 26, 2021
- 10-15 billion Number of COVID-19 vaccine doses necessary to achieve adequate global vaccination threshold
- $9 trillion Projected economic losses if wealthy countries are vaccinated by mid-2021 and poor countries are shut out (according to International Chamber of Commerce Report)
“In a better and saner world, no one would think for a second about protecting drug company monopolies as a priority over public health in the middle of the worst pandemic in 100 years. But we don’t live in that world. And Big Pharma fought really hard to keep the U.S. on the wrong side of the issue. But Pharma lost. And the basic principle that people’s lives around the world matter won.”Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen
On May 5, 2021, Trade Representative Katherine Tai announced the Biden-Harris administration’s support for a temporary waiver of intellectual property (IP) barriers for the COVID-19 vaccine. This groundbreaking decision came after much heavy lobbying against the waiver by Big Pharma and a blocked negotiation under the Trump administration.
In collaboration with a coalition of civil society advocacy groups, Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch (GTW) built a powerful campaign advocating for the World Trade Organization (WTO) waiver of IP barriers. Under normal circumstances, the WTO mandates that its 159 member nations grant certain monopoly rights to pharmaceutical firms, allowing these corporations to control the methods and quantity of vaccine production.
As of the beginning of May 2021, however, current COVID-19 vaccine production was nowhere near the critical threshold to meet global needs. In fact, at this rate, most low- and middle-income countries wouldn’t get vaccinated until at least 2022, with some countries likely lacking adequate access until 2024. An estimated 10-15 billion doses are needed for adequate global vaccine distribution, but as of May 2021, global production was still below 1.5 billion. In every region of the world, there are firms with the capacity to produce vaccines and greatly increase global supply if the formulas and technology are shared. 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.
It became clear that production expansion was necessary and a temporary waiver of the WTO IP rights would grant Global South producers, governments, and researchers access to the formulas and technologies to aid in vaccine production. In January 2021, GTW mobilized a powerful coalition to pressure the Biden-Harris administration to support the WTO waiver. After months of petitioning, organizing press conferences, and working with Congress members, GTW’s efforts were successful and resulted in the Biden-Harris administration’s support for the waiver.
This decision breaks the U.S.’s trade officials’ decades-long precedent of prioritizing Big Pharma over public health and represents a successful challenge to Big Pharma’s team of over 100 lobbyists on Capitol Hill. Most importantly, this victory sends a powerful message to the world: the current administration sided with the people over Big Pharma.