While Big Pharma made no secret of its opposition to waiving patents for coronavirus vaccines, a new investigation published Thursday details the extent of the powerful industry's behind-the-scenes lobbying push as it sought to crush an effort to ramp up global production and distribution of the lifesaving shots.
Joint reporting by Politico and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) revealed that pharmaceutical giants threatened several countries, including Belgium and Indonesia, with investment cuts if they decided to support a popular proposal to temporarily lift patent protections that have hindered vaccine production and distribution throughout the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
"Millions died without access to vaccines while pharmaceutical companies gouged extraordinary profits from the pandemic."
"Big Pharma used its vast lobbying and influencing efforts to try to kill a proposal that threatened the very tenets of the industry," the outlets report. "Top industry executives enjoyed direct access to senior officials within the E.U., which was opposed to the proposal from the very start and encouraged potentially rogue member states, including Italy and France, to fall into line."
"And the U.S., after a dramatic late intervention in favor of a waiver for vaccines eight months after the proposal had been tabled, failed to follow through as the Biden administration came under pressure from industry and Congress," they added.
The investigation uncovered several instances in which pharmaceutical giants directly pressured and threatened country officials over the patent waiver, which was originally introduced in late 2020 by South Africa and India. The version the World Trade Organization finally approved in June--almost two years and millions of coronavirus deaths later--was so thoroughly gutted that it could no longer be accurately described as a waiver.
An adviser to the Belgian prime minister recounted a phone call they received in 2021 from a spokesperson for Janssen Pharmaceuticals, a Belgium-headquartered firm that is wholly owned by Johnson & Johnson, one of the major coronavirus vaccine producers eager to protect its stranglehold on production.
"According to the adviser, the spokesperson warned them that if Belgium supported a radical proposal made by India and South Africa at the World Trade Organization, then Janssen might rethink its vast billion-dollar research and development investments in Belgium," Politico and TBIJ noted.
While Belgium never formally endorsed the proposed patent waiver, "Janssen appears to have been worried that the country's stance might change, possibly after some Belgian politicians appeared receptive to the proposal," the outlets reported. "Soon after Belgium's development cooperation minister Meryame Kitir appeared on TV to support a lifting of vaccine IP protections in late April 2021, the adviser received a call from Janssen's public affairs spokesperson."
The adviser said the Janssen official warned that "if Belgium is supporting this, the [Johnson & Johnson] headquarters in New Jersey are going to be agitated and they might consider reviewing the R&D budget."
According to Politico and TBIJ, the Belgian official's account "echoes that of others around the world."
"An Indonesian official told the Bureau and Politico that, in 2020, when the country was in discussions with a different pharmaceutical company about a Covid-19 drug, the company pressured Indonesia on its waiver position," the investigation found. "The 'stick' was reduced investment, the official said."
Unlike Belgium, Indonesia ultimately defied pharmaceutical industry pressure and joined more than 100 mostly developing countries in backing the waiver.
But it wasn't nearly enough to overcome opposition from rich countries--particularly Germany and other powerful members of the E.U., which faced immense lobbying pressure and spending from Pfizer, Moderna, and other pharmaceutical industry giants and trade groups such as the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations.
"Between January 2020 and September 2022, 13 pharmaceutical lobby groups and companies held nearly 100 meetings with the most senior [Eureopan] Commission officials," Politico and TBIJ found. "In the U.K., there were more than 360 meetings between January 2020 and March 2022--equivalent to nearly one every two days. Boris Johnson personally attended 11 of them."
Max Lawson, co-chair of the People's Vaccine Alliance and head of inequality policy at Oxfam, said in response to the investigation that "these shocking allegations are a testament to the huge unaccountable power of big business in global politics."
"Millions died without access to vaccines while pharmaceutical companies gouged extraordinary profits from the pandemic," Lawson added. "Rich countries expressed warm words and pledged donations, but to Germany, the U.K., Switzerland, and the European Commission, it was apparently just a PR exercise. In the end, global solidarity was snuffed out by the wealthy pharmaceutical lobby, which is not how a healthy democracy should function."
More than 1,400 people around the world are still dying each day from Covid-19, and poor nations are still struggling to obtain sufficient vaccine doses and therapeutics. To date, just 23.4% of people in low-income countries have received at least one coronavirus vaccine dose.
While Politico and TBIJ's findings offered a grim look at how corporate power and influence peddling can stamp out critical public health initiatives behind closed doors, Lawson argued that there is still "a glimmer of hope amid these revelations."
"The narrow outcome of TRIPS negotiations set an important precedent, recognizing that intellectual property rules are a barrier to accessing medical tools," Lawson said. "World Trade Organization members are now deciding whether to extend the decision to cover tests and treatments. That could ensure that everyone, everywhere has access to lifesaving medical tools that reduce Covid-19 hospitalizations and death."
"While Big Pharma will once again use all of its lobbying might to protect its medical monopolies," he added, "governments must ensure this time that they put people's lives before profits."