Apr 15, 2021
Instead of letting a few pharmaceutical giants retain exclusive and lucrative control over life-saving Covid-19 vaccines, 60% of U.S. voters want President Joe Biden to endorse a motion at the World Trade Organization to temporarily waive coronavirus-related patent protections, a move that health advocates say is a prerequisite to increasing the global supply of doses and equitably distributing them in order to reduce the impact and duration of the pandemic.
That's according to a new Data for Progress poll (pdf) released Thursday. The survey--conducted from March 24 to 26 on behalf of the Progressive International, a global coalition dedicated to building a more egalitarian world--found that three out of five voters support suspending pandemic-related intellectual property rules at the WTO for the duration of the crisis.
"If intellectual property restrictions are not lifted, the pandemic will go on for longer, killing more people and damaging more livelihoods."
--David Adler, Progressive International
At issue is the WTO's Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, or TRIPS, which grants Big Pharma lengthy patent protections--enabling a small number of corporations to monopolize coronavirus-related knowledge and technology while outlawing the replication of vaccine recipes that would aid a swift expansion of manufacturing.
Seventy-two percent of registered Democrats support temporarily waiving Covid-19 vaccine patents, and even 50% of Republican voters want Biden to join the vast majority of WTO member nations that have been pushing for such a move. Only 28% of Americans think the U.S. should keep blocking the global effort to make vital medical technologies universally accessible during a pandemic that has claimed the lives of nearly three million people worldwide.
The new polling shows that "there is a popular mandate from the U.S. American people to put human life and economic recovery ahead of corporate profits and a broken intellectual property system," said David Adler, the general coordinator of the Progressive International, in a statement.
"The message to President Biden is simple," Adler said. "It's time to act. Stand up to Big Pharma lobbyists and put the health and economic security of the U.S. American people and the whole world first."
\u201cNEW: polling from @DataProgress and @ProgIntl shows that the large majority of US voters support a waiver on WTO patent rules that are currently slowing global covid response. \n\nThe world needs it. The people want it. The question is, will @POTUS listen? \nhttps://t.co/S1GdOSuZGi\u201d— Michael Galant (@Michael Galant) 1618488123
Increasing vaccine supply, which is made much more difficult in the absence of a patent waiver, is a matter of life-and-death. So far, the overwhelming majority of doses have been allocated in rich countries. The scale of this global inequality, which progressive critics have dubbed "vaccine apartheid," is immense:
- United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres lamented in February that 10 wealthy countries had gobbled up 75% of the world's Covid-19 vaccines while people in more than 130 countries had yet to receive a single dose. Vaccine hoarding has not improved since then. The Washington Postreported Thursday that the U.S., which purchased enough vaccines for three times its population, could have 300 million extra doses by July.
- According to the New York Times, of the more than 841 million vaccine doses that have been administered across the globe, just 0.1% have gone to people in low-income nations, compared with 83% that have been given to people in high- and upper-middle-income countries. Vaccination rates between continents vary sharply, too, with 37% of North Americans and 22% of Europeans having been inoculated compared with only 1% of Africans.
As Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) said Thursday: "The global poor have been hit hardest by the pandemic and ensuing economic crisis. At least 85 poor countries are currently not expected to have significant access to the vaccine until 2023."
"This is a death sentence for millions around the world--and it is because giant pharmaceutical corporations would rather maximize profit than provide vaccines to people who need it," Omar added.
Restrictive vaccine patents are a key factor preventing the production of a sufficient number of doses to ensure that everyone in the world can be inoculated as quickly as possible, but there's a solution to vaccine apartheid, say global health campaigners.
"Temporary suspension of pharmaceutical monopolies is what the world needs. It would enable developing countries to help themselves deal with this pandemic," said Burcu Kilic, research director of the Access to Medicines Program at Public Citizen and member of Progressive International's Council. "But Big Pharma has been insisting on 'business-as-usual' at all costs."
\u201cIn October 2020, 100 lower-income countries presented the WTO with a proposal to waive patent protections on the Covid-19 vaccine for the duration of the pandemic. \n\nBut a coalition of rich countries, led by the United States, opposed the waiver.\u201d— Progressive International (@Progressive International) 1618480736
The TRIPS waiver proposal (pdf) was introduced last October by India and South Africa. The initiative has been embraced by more than 100 countries, primarily the WTO's low- and middle-income members. But the leaders of a handful of powerful states in the Global North--led by the U.S., U.K., and E.U.--have opposed it. Through its massive army of lobbyists, Big Pharma has also fought vehemently against the vaccine patent waiver.
As The Intercept's Natasha Lennard noted, "The refusal on the part of major pharmaceutical companies and Western powers to ensure the sharing of vaccine patent and production information has been an immeasurable moral failure, not to mention a most foolish approach to a pandemic in need of a global response. The new poll also makes clear that, for Biden, blocking vaccine sharing is not even a popular position."
Hundreds of civil society organizations, dozens of Democratic lawmakers, and World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus have spent months demanding that drugmakers be required to share vaccine recipes with manufacturers in developing countries.
Thanks in large part to this grassroots pressure, Biden is reportedly considering throwing Washington's support behind the TRIPS waiver following months of U.S. obstruction.
Kilic encouraged Biden to "listen to Americans who put him in power and quickly reverse course to do the right thing."
In a move that experts called welcome, but insufficient, Biden in January recommitted the U.S. to the WHO-backed COVAX vaccine sharing program. While she praised the president for taking "significant steps to rejoin the global community," Omar said that "now it is imperative that he support a waiver to boost the production of vaccines, treatments, and tests worldwide."
"Until all of us are safe from this virus, no one is."
--Rep. Ilhan Omar
"This is not just an issue of basic morality, but of public health," the congresswoman noted. "The virus does not respect borders. Until all of us are safe from this virus, no one is."
That message was echoed by Adler, who emphasized that "Covid-19 anywhere is a threat to public health and economic wellbeing everywhere. If intellectual property restrictions are not lifted, the pandemic will go on for longer, killing more people and damaging more livelihoods. "
Alluding to the emergence of more contagious variants that has turned global vaccination into a race against time, Adler said that "Americans know rigged rules to prop up Big Pharma's profits are not in their interest. The longer the virus has to spread, the more it can mutate and become vaccine-resistant."
The new poll comes ahead of a May 5 meeting of the WTO, during which member nations will once again consider the TRIPS waiver. Lennard noted that the proposal "needs backing by a consensus of the organization's 164 members to pass."
The Biden administration will "have to decide whether it stands with its constituents and lower-income countries worldwide or with pharmaceutical companies," as The New Republic's Kate Aronoff put it.
Urging Biden to listen to voters and fellow world leaders who insist on the necessity of a "people's vaccine" to end the devastation wrought by the coronavirus pandemic, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said Thursday that "the bottom line is, the faster we help vaccinate the global population, the safer we will all be. That should be our number one priority, not maximizing the profits of pharmaceutical companies and their shareholders."
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