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Protesters organized by the Oxfam Club at Indiana University participate in a Free the Vaccine demonstration outside Catalent on May 5, 2021.

Protesters organized by the Oxfam Club at Indiana University participate in a Free the Vaccine demonstration outside Catalent on May 5, 2021. The protesters are demanding an end to vaccine patents and for vaccines to be provided free to the entire world. The Moderna, Johnson and Johnson, and Pfizer vaccines are manufactured at the Catalent facility in Bloomington. (Photo: Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

After Bill Gates' Opposition, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Says 'Yes' to 'Narrow' Patent Waivers

"No barriers should stand in the way of equitable access to vaccines, including intellectual property, which is why we are supportive of a narrow waiver during the pandemic."

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced Thursday its support for "a narrow waiver" of intellectual property protections for Covid-19 vaccines—a shift from the foundation's previous stance on the issue that comes amid sustained scrutiny over Big Pharma's role in blocking such a move.

Foundation CEO Mark Suzman's statement, reported first by Devex, came a day after the Biden administration—in the face of global pressure—announced its support for a TRIPS waiver proposal at the World Trade Organization.

In his remarks, Suzman pointed to "heartbreaking surges in India and Brazil" and said "there's much more to be done" to increase vaccine access.

"No barriers should stand in the way of equitable access to vaccines, including intellectual property," he added, "which is why we are supportive of a narrow waiver during the pandemic."

The announcement come less than three weeks after billionaire Bill Gates, co-chair and trustee of the foundation that bears his name, said in an interview with Sky News that he was against sharing vaccine recipes with the world as a way to stem the global crisis.

Musing on the possible motive behind the change in the foundation's position on patent waivers, Health Global Access Project on Friday attributed the reversal to when "you see history being written and realize you're on the wrong side of it."

Journalist Adam H. Johnson responded to Suzman's statement with a Twitter thread saying that the prospect of a "narrow" waiver was worthy of scrutiny and suggested it was a sign of corporate interests moving "to coopt the patent waiver debate and make sure it's as watered down and temporary as possible."

And Nick Dearden, director of Global Justice Now, also says a "narrow patent waiver isn't enough."

Writing at The Nation on Friday, Tim Schwab said the recent reporting on Bill Gates's comments on the issue "may have understated the full scope of the Gates Foundation's interests in this debate—like the sprawling array of intellectual property the charity has acquired access to through its grants and investments. Or the fact that the foundation co-owns a vaccine company." Schwab continued:

Last October, The Nation reported on a $40 million investment the Gates Foundation made in 2015 in a start-up company called CureVac, which is currently wrapping up clinical trials for its Covid vaccine. The Gates Foundation at one point was the second largest shareholder of the company and had the ability to nominate a member to CureVac's supervisory board.

The foundation is no longer a leading shareholder, but its 2015 investment may be worth hundreds of millions of dollars today, as last November CureVac agreed to supply up to 405 million doses to the European Commission—a deal that seems to raise new questions about Gates's role in perpetuating vaccine apartheid. While the Gates Foundation currently stands to financially benefit from CureVac's prioritizing sales to the wealthiest nations and preserving its intellectual property and patents, doesn't the foundation's charitable mission—and related tax benefits—require it to direct immunizations into the arms of the global poor? CureVac and the Gates Foundation both failed to respond to questions about if or how they plan to do so.

But the larger questions raised by their business partnership concerns how Bill Gates, one of history's most storied monopolists, has found himself so deeply involved in what may be one of the most potent monopoly markets ever devised: a vaccine that virtually everyone on earth needs.

Beyond co-owning a vaccine company, the Gates Foundation has other far-reaching means to influence how vaccine markets work—or don't. This includes helping direct the WHO's efforts to deliver Covid cures to the global poor, advising the G7 delegation on pandemics preparedness, meeting with the U.S. Office of the United States Trade Representative to discuss intellectual property related to Covid vaccines, holding regular calls with pharmaceutical company CEOs and Anthony Fauci, and brokering vaccine deals between the University of Oxford, AstraZeneca, and the Serum Institute of India.

"It is increasingly urgent to ask if Gates's multiple roles in the pandemic—as a charity, a business, an investor, and a lobbyist—are about philanthropy and giving away money, or about taking control and exercising power—monopoly power," wrote Schwab.

As Schwab noted, Gates was among the stakeholders that recently met with U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai regarding the TRIPS waiver originally put forth last fall by India and South Africa.

To the cheers of health justice campaigners, Tai announced May 5, a week after her virtual meeting with Gates, that the U.S. would back patent waiver negotiations at the WTO as a way to help end the pandemic.

"These extraordinary times and circumstances of call for extraordinary measures," said Tai.

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