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Protesters urge rich countries to support a patent waiver for coronavirus vaccines

Activists wearing masks representing German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Joe Biden hold a protest on July 14, 2021 in Berlin. (Photo: Stefanie Loos/AFP via Getty Images)

Ahead of WTO Meeting, Biden Urged to Stop Letting Europe 'Block Progress' on Patent Waiver

A public health coalition told the U.S. president that his "leadership in securing a meaningful WTO waiver and helping to end the Covid-19 pandemic and the misery it is causing all of humanity is a moral necessity."

Kenny Stancil

With just over a week to go before a key World Trade Organization meeting starts, a coalition of civil society organizations is urging U.S. President Joe Biden to play a more active role in securing unanimous support for a temporary waiver of the intellectual property barriers that are limiting the global supply of Covid-19 vaccines, treatments, and tests required to bring the ongoing pandemic to a swift end.

"U.S. passivity has empowered close U.S. allies... to block progress even as millions die or become seriously ill waiting for effective vaccines and treatments."

"A meaningful WTO waiver that can facilitate the necessary scale-up in production will only be agreed [to] if the Biden administration applies maximum diplomatic and political pressure to make it happen," the coalition wrote in a recent letter to the White House. "Doing so will require an intensified effort now."

The Ministerial Conference, a biannual meeting during which WTO members make decisions about multi-lateral trade agreements, begins on November 30 in Geneva. Because the WTO operates by consensus, the intransigence of just one of the body's 164 member nations is enough to obstruct changes supported by a majority.

"The stakes could not be higher," wrote the coalition, which includes leaders from Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), Oxfam America, Human Rights Watch, Public Citizen, Health GAP, Partners in Health, Amnesty International, and other groups that have been active in People's Vaccine Alliance efforts to ensure universal access to lifesaving doses.

"Failure to enact a waiver will prolong the pandemic leading to more death, illness, economic hardship, and social and political disruption," the coalition noted. More than 5.1 million people have already died from Covid-19 around the globe, including over four million since October 2, 2020, when India and South Africa first introduced a proposal—now backed by well over 100 countries—to temporarily waive certain aspects of the WTO's Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement. 

"The most important thing the WTO can do to end the pandemic is to get out of the way by removing WTO intellectual property barriers to saving lives," the coalition added. "What would be the point of holding a WTO Ministerial now unless it is to enact an effective Covid-19 intellectual property waiver?"

In July 2020, Ady Barkan, co-executive director of Be a Hero and a signatory to the letter, asked then-presidential candidate Biden if he would commit to sharing vaccine know-how and technology with other countries should the U.S. discover a recipe first, to which Biden said: "Absolutely, positively. This is the only humane thing in the world to do."

When Biden in early May 2021 threw Washington's weight behind the TRIPS waiver following months of U.S. opposition, progressives praised the president for joining more than 100 nations; dozens of congressional Democrats, former heads of state, and Nobel laureates; the Pope; and myriad public health experts and social justice advocates worldwide in recognizing that suspending coronavirus-related patents for the duration of the pandemic would be necessary to save lives.

"U.S. support initially moved most countries that had opposed to reverse course," the coalition noted in its letter. "Yet, six months later there has been no progress on enacting it."

"We have been very disappointed that the Biden administration has since been unwilling to take further leadership to ensure a waiver text is successfully concluded and adopted," stressed the signatories. "U.S. passivity has empowered close U.S. allies—the European Union, on behalf of Germany, plus Switzerland and the United Kingdom—to block progress even as millions die or become seriously ill waiting for effective vaccines and treatments."

As the coalition told Biden: "The circumstances that led you to support waiving the WTO intellectual property barriers have not changed. Nor has the reality that ensuring people worldwide can get vaccinated and have access to tests and treatments is how you end the pandemic."

"What is urgently needed and what we are urging you to deliver for this WTO Ministerial is action by the WTO members to waive specific WTO TRIPS rules that guarantee pharmaceutical corporations... monopoly rights to control supplies of Covid-19 vaccines, treatments, and diagnostic tests and where they are distributed," the coalition added. "Doing so will unlock IP barriers that have been inhibiting qualified independent producers in developing countries from scaling up production and supplies."

While 67% of people in high-income nations have been fully inoculated against Covid-19, just 5% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose, according to the latest figures from Our World in Data.

Last week, epidemiologists reiterated their warning that the longer this "vaccine apartheid" persists, the the higher the chances that a vaccine-resistant variant will emerge, endangering millions of lives and livelihoods around the world.

Before wealthy nations began administering booster shots and prior to the authorization of vaccines for children, "the world needed more than 11 billion doses in 2021," the letter states. "There remains an absolute shortage, and ongoing extreme inequality of access."

"Vaccine makers," the letter adds, "have not met their production pledges and access to the most effective vaccines is limited" due to a combination of rich countries hoarding doses and Big Pharma hoarding the publicly funded knowledge and technology required to ramp up manufacturing.

Despite this, the coalition pointed out to Biden, "there is no plan to make enough to meet the 70% global vaccination goal by September 2022 that you pledged at the United Nations. And billions more doses will be needed every year for boosters and to combat new variants."

In addition to creating an artificial scarcity of vaccine doses, corporate-friendly intellectual property rules and restrictive licensing agreements are threatening to constrain the global supply of other crucial medical tools needed to defeat the Covid-19 pandemic. 

As the coalition explained in its letter, "promising antiviral medicines are emerging," but "pharmaceutical firms are using their intellectual property monopolies to undermine universal access to these lifesaving treatments by segmenting global markets so that generic production and sale is only allowed for some countries instead of maximizing the scale of generic production by possible suppliers everywhere in the world."

"Has the world learned nothing from the millions of people who died from AIDS in the developing world because rich countries stalled a WTO waiver for years and people could not get the antiretroviral medications that made HIV a manageable disease in rich countries?" the coalition asked. "Twenty-two years ago, at the WTO Seattle Ministerial, developing countries then also led by South Africa demanded a TRIPS waiver and no waiver was agreed. It was two more years and millions of preventable deaths before any WTO action."

"Has the world learned nothing from the millions of people who died from AIDS in the developing world because rich countries stalled a WTO waiver for years?"

"As was the case then," wrote the coalition, "we will continue to fight relentlessly for a waiver of the WTO's intellectual property rules to remove barriers to universal access until people worldwide can get the medicines they need to be safe and the Covid-19 pandemic is ended. It would be entirely unacceptable if such a waiver were not agreed at the imminent WTO Ministerial."

"President Biden," the letter concludes, "billions of people here and around the world are relying on you to deliver. Your leadership in securing a meaningful WTO waiver and helping to end the Covid-19 pandemic and the misery it is causing all of humanity is a moral necessity. It would help restore U.S. standing around the world and a create sense of relief among U.S. residents that their president was taking strong action to return normalcy to their lives."

Numerous surveys have shown that U.S. voters overwhelmingly support efforts to remove Big Pharma's intellectual property monopolies and boost the worldwide manufacturing of generic vaccines, treatments, and tests. On Tuesday in Washington, D.C., U.S. Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) will join the coalition in delivering three million petitions urging Biden to pressure remaining holdouts to support the TRIPS waiver.


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