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Vaccine equity campaigners protest

Protesters hold placards in New York City demanding an end to vaccine apartheid on September 20, 2021. (Photo: Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images)

Experts to Biden: Strongarm Big Pharma to Erase 'Moral Stain' of Vaccine Apartheid

"Every day that goes by, another roughly 10,000 people are lost to this disease—what are governments with the power to change this horrific statistic waiting for?"

Jake Johnson

President Joe Biden has the authority to compel U.S. pharmaceutical companies to share their coronavirus vaccine formulas and technological know-how with pandemic-ravaged developing countries, a fact that experts and public health campaigners amplified with urgency on Wednesday as world leaders convened for a virtual Covid-19 summit.

According to the New York Times, Biden has privately pushed both Pfizer and Moderna—the makers of the two available mRNA vaccines—to "enter into joint ventures where they would license their technology to contract manufacturers with the aim of providing vaccines to low- and middle-income countries."

"The longer the world is divided into Covid-19 haves and have-nots, the longer the pandemic will drag on."

But such behind-the-scenes pressure has not yielded results. On Wednesday morning, ahead of the White House-hosted coronavirus summit, the Biden administration announced it reached a deal with Pfizer to buy up 500 million more vaccine doses to donate to other countries—continuing a charity-centered approach that has done little to shrink the yawning inoculation gap between rich and poor countries.

Vaccine donations also do nothing to help low-income nations develop regional manufacturing capacity, leaving intact a few pharmaceutical companies' near-total control over production.

"Charity is good, but we can't rely on charity alone," Peter Singer, an adviser to the director-general of the World Health Organization, told Nature.

Pharmaceutical giants' refusal to voluntarily license their vaccine formulas and technology to qualified manufacturers across the globe has led public health campaigners to call on Biden to force their hands, warning that failure to act would leave billions of people in developing countries vulnerable to the Delta variant and other dangerous coronavirus mutations.

Just 2% of people in low-income countries have received at least one coronavirus vaccine dose, according to Our World in Data. Amnesty International noted in a new report that Moderna has not yet delivered a single vaccine dose to a low-income country, and Pfizer and BioNTech have "delivered nine times more vaccines to Sweden alone than to all low-income countries combined."

Lawrence Gostin, a public health law expert at Georgetown University, told the Times that Biden could opt to declare the coronavirus pandemic a national security threat, a move that would allow him to "require companies to sign technology transfer contracts in exchange for reasonable compensation."

"Moderna accepted substantial federal funding under Operation Warp Speed and both Pfizer and Moderna benefited from [National Institutes of Health] dollars for the basic research over decade for mRNA technology," Gostin noted.

Back in March, advocacy organizations pointed out that the U.S. government owns a patent that covers crucial spike-protein technology developed by the NIH. That technology has been used in at least five major Covid-19 vaccines, including Pfizer's and Moderna's.

Despite pressure from activists and experts—including an NIH scientist who helped develop the spike-protein technology—Biden has declined to use the federal government's ownership of the key patent as leverage to oblige pharmaceutical giants to share their formulas across the globe.

Last week, the U.S.-based consumer advocacy group Public Citizen uncovered a portion of the closely guarded Pfizer vaccine recipe and urged the Biden administration to divulge the remaining details.

"The Biden administration should help the world produce more vaccines by sharing the rest of the vaccine recipe," said Zain Rizvi, a law and policy researcher at Public Citizen's Access to Medicines program.

With the world approaching 5 million official coronavirus deaths, activists said Biden's coronavirus summit on Wednesday "must be a turning point" in the fight against the global pandemic.

"Vaccine apartheid is moral stain on the world's response to Covid-19."

"Vaccine apartheid is a moral stain on the world's response to Covid-19," tweeted the U.K.-based group Global Justice Now. "We need a People's Vaccine.

In his remarks at the coronavirus summit on Wednesday, Biden said that "nothing is more urgent than all of us working together to defeat Covid-19."

"We're not going to solve this crisis with half-measures," Biden said.

But while the president vowed that the U.S. will help bolster regional manufacturing efforts in South Africa and elsewhere, he focused heavily on vaccine donations and thanked Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla—who Biden called a "good friend"—for his role in the pandemic response.

Biden also did not mention technology transfer or the temporary vaccine patent waiver that he endorsed back in May, an omission likely to fuel criticism that he's taken a backseat as Germany and other U.S. allies at the World Trade Organization continue to stonewall the proposal.

Dr. Maria Guevara, international medical secretary of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), warned in a statement Wednesday that "the longer the world is divided into Covid-19 haves and have-nots, the longer the pandemic will drag on, the more variants can develop, and the more deaths and suffering will occur."

"It is time to look critically at the root causes of the access crisis in this pandemic: the structural inequality in the global health system which concentrates decision-making power and ownership of lifesaving health technologies in the hands of a few powerful nations and their pharmaceutical corporations," said Guevara.

“Every day that goes by," she added, "another roughly 10,000 people are lost to this disease—what are governments with the power to change this horrific statistic waiting for?"

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