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Protesters stand with a banner that reads "Free the patents! Coronavaccine for all!" during a protest at a Pfizer building in Berlin on January 23, 2021. (Photo:  Christophe Gateau/Picture Alliance via Getty Images)

'Outrageous,' Says Sanders After Corporate Lobby Calls Sharing Vaccine Recipe With World's Poor 'Misguided'

"I urge the Biden administration to support the proposal to waive vaccine-related IP rights at the WTO to rapidly expand supplies of vaccines."

Jake Johnson

Sen. Bernie Sanders on Wednesday denounced as "outrageous" the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's opposition to a South Africa and India-led effort to temporarily waive certain intellectual property rights to allow for the production of generic versions of coronavirus vaccines that—while developed with huge injections of public funds—are controlled by pharmaceutical giants.

"Amid a global pandemic, major pharmaceutical companies are lobbying to protect billions in profits," Sanders (I-Vt.) said after the deep-pocketed Chamber of Commerce, the largest and most powerful corporate lobbying group in the U.S., dismissed the proposal to waive intellectual property rights—and thus enable countless people in poor nations to access life-saving shots—as "misguided" and "a distraction."

"It is outrageous that, amid a global pandemic, major pharmaceutical companies are lobbying to protect billions in profits."
—Sen. Bernie Sanders

Echoing a demand of hundreds of civil society organizations in the U.S. and around the world, the Vermont senator called on the Biden administration to ignore big business lobbying and support the India-South Africa proposal to "waive vaccine-related IP rights at the [World Trade Organization] to rapidly expand supplies of vaccines."

Despite garnering support from more than 100 countries, the waiver push has run up against opposition from powerful nations such as the U.S., the U.K., and Canada, which have thwarted the will of a supermajority of WTO member nations in order to ensure that pharmaceutical corporations retain monopoly control over coronavirus vaccine technology.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the new director-general of the WTO, said in an interview with Reuters last month that it is "unconscionable" that people are dying due to continued lack of access to the coronavirus vaccine "when we have the technology" to ensure that everyone is inoculated.

"No one is safe until everyone is safe," she added. "Vaccine nationalism at this time just will not pay, because the variants are coming. If other countries are not immunized, it will just be a blowback."

The Chamber of Commerce's public opposition to the IP waiver proposal came as powerful pharmaceutical industry groups in the U.S. are reportedly urging the Biden administration to punish countries for attempting to ramp up coronavirus vaccine production without the blessing of drug companies, which see coronavirus vaccine-making as a lucrative and potentially long-term business opportunity given the emergence of new strains of the deadly pathogen.

Investigative journalist Lee Fang of The Intercept reported Wednesday that the pharmaceutical industry "has filed hundreds of pages of documents to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative outlining the alleged threat posed by any effort to challenge 'basic intellectual property protections' in the response to the coronavirus pandemic."

Countries named in the industry complaints include Hungary, Chile, and Colombia.

Fang continued:

The drug industry has sharply criticized any attempt to share vaccine patents or the technological knowledge needed to manufacture them, despite global need. According to one estimate, wealthy countries representing just 16 percent of the world's population have already secured more than half of all Covid-19 vaccine contracts. And current projections show that much of the middle-income and developing world will not achieve widespread vaccinations for years. Some projections predict that low-income countries such as Mali, South Sudan, and Zimbabwe may not achieve significant levels of vaccination until early 2024...

The push by foreign governments to unilaterally set the price and pace of production of coronavirus vaccines, drug lobbyists with the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, or BIO, argued, will place 'American jobs and the workers who rely on them at risk, and impede scientific advances from reaching society.'

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA, another drug lobby group, requested that the Biden administration "pursue a variety of enforcement initiatives" and "use all available tools and leverage to ensure America's trading partners" do not suspend traditional intellectual property rights in the fight against the coronavirus.

In direct response to Fang's reporting, the Citizens Trade Campaign (CTC), a U.S. based consumer and environmental advocacy group, tweeted that "pharma greed is standing in the way of an end to the Covid-19 pandemic."

"The Biden administration should support the [Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights] waiver at the WTO," the group added, "so that vaccines and treatments can be produced in as many places as possible as quickly as possible."


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