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U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about the Covid-19 vaccine

President Joe Biden speaks about Covid-19 vaccination efforts in Washington, DC on November 3, 2021. (Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

Biden Told Not to Give Publicly Owned Covid-19 Vaccine Tech Over to Corporations

"There is no compelling reason to offer this technology on a monopoly basis to a corporation," nearly 30 advocacy groups write in a new letter.

Jake Johnson

A coalition of advocacy groups on Tuesday implored U.S. President Joe Biden not to give control of emerging, publicly funded coronavirus vaccine technology to profit-seeking corporations, warning such a move would double down on a privatized approach that has failed to ensure equitable vaccine access worldwide.

Released ahead of the White House's Summit on the Future of Covid-19 Vaccines that kicked off Tuesday morning, a new open letter signed by 29 progressive organizations argues "there is no compelling reason to offer this technology on a monopoly basis to a corporation, and a profoundly compelling reason to make the technology as open and readily accessible as possible across the globe."

"It is crucial that we learn from earlier mistakes in managing publicly funded vaccine technology."

The technology in question is the so-called pan-coronavirus vaccine that the U.S. Army's Walter Reed Institute of Research has been developing and testing in recent months.

Dubbed a potential "super vaccine," the Walter Reed shot is aimed at providing protection against all current and future strains of Covid-19 as well as other coronaviruses. The vaccine has reportedly yielded promising results in early trials.

The advocacy coalition—which includes Public Citizen, Physicians for Human Rights, Health GAP, and the Revolving Door Project—wrote in their letter Tuesday that the Biden administration must "maintain public control of the Walter Reed vaccine and share its benefits and technology openly with the world."

Such a strategy would contrast sharply with the current, deeply unequal coronavirus vaccination effort, which is dominated by a handful of pharmaceutical corporations that are reaping huge profits.

Even though they received massive sums of federal funding and made use of government technology to develop their shots, companies such as Pfizer and Moderna have monopoly control over vaccine production, artificially constraining supply as billions of people around the world go without access to the lifesaving shots more than two years into the pandemic.

"The public investments in coronavirus research, dating back nearly two decades and including the period after the origin of Covid-19, helped spur amazing inventions that have saved millions of lives," the new letter notes. "However, private, monopoly control over those vaccines contributed to shortages, rationing, and excessive prices. It is crucial that we learn from earlier mistakes in managing publicly funded vaccine technology."

"To date, development of the Walter Reed vaccine has been a triumph of government investment in public health," the letter continues. "We ask for it to remain that way as the Army seeks partners for further trials and mass production."

Peter Maybarduk, director of the Access to Medicines program at Public Citizen, said Tuesday that "the first task in preparing for the future of Covid vaccines is learning from the calamitous past, including the failure to share vaccines early in the pandemic and equip the world against the virus."

"The White House has the power and responsibility to ensure publicly-developed Covid technologies are made available to everyone, everywhere," Maybarduk added.

Revolving Door Project senior researcher Timi Iwayemi agreed, pointing out that "current production and distribution agreements have empowered corporations while limiting the promise of lifesaving coronavirus vaccines."

"Continuing down a path that restricts widespread manufacturing and distribution of Covid vaccines," Iwayemi said, "would lead to unnecessary deaths and easier opportunities for the virus to mutate."

In a column for The American Prospect earlier this year, Iwayemi observed that "so far, development of the [Walter Reed] vaccine has been a public triumph."

"But this next phase is where the pharmaceutical industry can get in on a vaccine developed by and for the public," Iwayemi cautioned. "To protect the broader public, governments must adopt an open system that will support smooth transfer of vital technologies globally. This would mean choosing public funding, open-source research, and transparent nonexclusive licensing contracts over restrictive government-granted monopolies."

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