Healthcare activist Ady Barkan on Thursday urged President Joe Biden to make good on the promise he made last year to share Covid-19 vaccine technology with the world and not let intellectual property restrictions obstruct the global mass production of vital doses.
"If the U.S. discovers a vaccine first, will you commit to sharing that technology with other countries? And will you ensure there are no patents to stand in the way of other countries and companies mass-producing those life-saving vaccines?" Barkan, a well-known Medicare for All advocate, asked then-Democratic presidential nominee Biden during an interview last July.
"Absolutely, positively," Biden responded. "This is the only humane thing in the world to do."
And yet, as president, Biden has so far refused to support a motion at the World Trade Organization—led by India and South Africa and backed by more than 100 countries—to suspend coronavirus-related intellectual property rights for the duration of the pandemic so that tests, treatments, and vaccines can be mass-produced globally.
Unlike his predecessor in the White House, Biden has joined and contributed to COVAX, but global health campaigners have argued that the United Nations-backed program to boost vaccine distribution in impoverished countries doesn't address the fundamental injustice of Big Pharma's monopoly control over vaccine knowledge and technology, which is a barrier to increased production.
According to public health experts, approving the vaccine patent waiver proposal at the WTO and investing in ramped-up vaccine manufacturing around the world are necessary to beat Covid-19—which they stress is a global problem, not a national one.
"Mr. President, you and I are both safe from this deadly pandemic because we could get the vaccine," Barkan said in a video shared Thursday on social media. "But billions of families around the world aren't as lucky as you and me."
India, for example, is currently being ravaged by Covid-19, where less than 2% of its population has been fully vaccinated. Of the just over 1 billion doses that have been administered worldwide, only 0.2% have gone to people in low-income countries, compared with 83% that have been given to people in high- and upper-middle-income nations. In the absence of a vaccine patent waiver and expanded production, much of the Global South won't be inoculated until 2023 at the earliest.
The staggering gap between the number of doses administered in rich and poor countries—a manifestation of inequality that critics have dubbed "vaccine apartheid"—threatens to prolong the pandemic everywhere, resulting in the preventable suffering and deaths of potentially millions of people as well as trillions of dollars in avoidable economic losses.
That's why a majority of the world's countries; hundreds of civil society organizations in the U.S. and abroad; World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus; multiple Nobel prize-winning economists; scores of former heads of government; and dozens of Democratic lawmakers in the House and Senate are demanding a "people's vaccine" as opposed to a profit vaccine.
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As Barkan said, inoculating the entire world "is the only way that we can prevent the development of vaccine-resistant coronavirus variants."
"When I asked you last year if you would change the global rules for vaccines, you did not hesitate, equivocate, or mince your words," Barkan noted.
Last July, Biden said that "the answer is yes. Yes, yes, yes."
"And it's not only a good thing to do, it's overwhelmingly in our interest to do it as well," Biden added. This is well-understood throughout the U.S. where, according to recent polls, anywhere from 60% to 70% of the public wants the president to end Washington's opposition to the vaccine patent waiver and force Big Pharma to share its formulas and blueprints with manufacturers around the world.
Alluding to the upcoming meeting of the WTO, where the body's 164 member nations will decide the fate of the vaccine patent waiver by a consensus vote, Barkan on Thursday told the president that "May 5 will be your moment, America's moment, to steer us down a more just and humane path."
"Governments from around the globe will gather," said Barkan. "They will ask America to waive the rules that are blocking them from making enough vaccines to protect their people."
As Barkan said, "American innovation has delivered health and safety to the people of this country."
"But," he noted, "billions of people have been excluded. Their dreams are no less real than ours. Their love is no less strong. Their lives are no less worthy."
"Because they live somewhere else, because they have less money, because the international laws are unfair, and because the pharmaceutical companies are so greedy, millions more people may die of this disease," he added. "You know that this is wrong."
"In a few days, at the WTO meeting, all eyes will be on America," Barkan said. "We will decide the answer to the world's plea."
"What kind of leadership will we display?" he asked. "The answer, Mr. President, is up to you."