Biden urged to fight big pharma’s vaccine greed at key WTO meeting

Nov 27, 2021
US President Joe Biden
US President Joe Biden: a lot more must be done to regain the region's confidence in the consistency and reliability of US policies. (Image: AP/Andrew Harnik)

Joe Biden must make sure those at WTO talks next week endorse a plan to waive COVID-19 vaccine patents to help end the pandemic.

A coalition of civil society organisations and progressive US lawmakers gathered Tuesday to send President Joe Biden an urgent message ahead of the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) Ministerial Conference next week: Ensure adoption of a patent waiver for COVID-19 vaccines or risk prolonging the global pandemic indefinitely.

Public Citizen, Doctors Without Borders USA, Justice Is Global, and dozens of other organisations delivered 3 million petition signatures to the Biden administration pressing it to take on a more active role in negotiations over the waiver, which the president endorsed in May.

Despite Biden’s support for the proposal — which came after months of relentless public pressure — it has remained stuck in WTO talks due to the opposition of a handful of rich European countries, including Germany, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland. A majority of WTO member nations support the waiver, which was first introduced in October 2020 by India and South Africa.

At a press conference on Tuesday, Lori Wallach of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch criticised Biden for taking a “passive approach” to WTO deliberations that has “allowed rich European countries to stonewall” an agreement on the waiver, which public health advocates say is necessary to remove the intellectual property restrictions hindering global vaccine production.

“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,” Wallach said in a statement. “A meaningful WTO waiver that can facilitate the necessary scale-up in Covid vaccine and medicine production will only be agreed if the Biden administration applies maximum diplomatic and political pressure to make it happen.”

“The stakes could not be higher,” she added. “Failure to enact a waiver will prolong the pandemic leading to more death, illness, economic hardship, and social and political disruption.”

More than a year and a half into the global pandemic, just 5 per cent of people in low-income countries have received at least one coronavirus vaccine dose as rich nations — including the US — continue to hoard supplies, destroy unused doses, and refuse to force pharmaceutical giants to broadly share publicly funded vaccine technology.

To date, poor countries have been forced to rely on inadequate trickles of vaccine charity from rich countries, whose deliveries are lagging well behind their promises. The head of the World Health Organization recently deemed the massive inoculation gap between rich and poor countries “a scandal.”

The WTO’s Ministerial Conference, scheduled to kick off on November 30, will come amid growing fears of another devastating winter as Europe experiences another surge in coronavirus infections and as cases rise in the U.S. ahead of the holidays. Developing countries would be most vulnerable to another global wave of infections, given their lack of access to vaccines and emerging treatments.

“We’re seeing a huge disparity in the availability of vaccines to high-and low-income countries, which is pretty scandalous,” Lily Caprani, head of advocacy for health and pandemic response at UNICEF, told Politico on Tuesday. “We live in fear of an outbreak or a surge in one of those countries because it would be a disaster for their health system and is the kind of place where … another variant can emerge.”

US Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), a vocal advocate of the vaccine patent waiver, echoed that warning during Tuesday’s press conference with civil society organisations.

“Presence of the virus anywhere is a threat to people everywhere,” Schakowsky said, pointing to scientists’ fears of a potential “variant that is resistant to the current vaccine”.

“Now is the time to stop the carnage,” she added. “The way out is simple … distributing the vaccine throughout the globe.”

Eager to protect its large and growing vaccine profits, the pharmaceutical industry has lobbied aggressively against the proposed patent waiver, which would allow manufacturers in developing countries to produce generic versions of the lifesaving shots.

Thus far, US-based pharma giants such as Pfizer and Moderna have sold most of their vaccine supply to rich nations.

“Over the last year, pharmaceutical corporations have shown that we cannot count on them to deliver access to Covid vaccines for everyone, everywhere,” Abby Maxman, president and CEO of Oxfam America, said Tuesday. “Only concerted action by governments to force them to share the technology, know-how, and intellectual property will achieve this.”

Facing mounting pressure to address disparities in vaccine access across the globe, the Biden administration announced last week that it plans to expand manufacturing capacity inside the US to produce at least a billion doses a year starting in the latter half of 2022 and increase donations to poor countries.

While vaccine equity campaigners welcomed the step, they said it would not be nearly enough to ensure that shots reach poor countries in a timely manner. Experts say roughly 11 billion doses are needed worldwide to end the pandemic, which has killed at least 5.1 million people. On average, more than 7700 people are dying of COVID-19 each day.

A recent study by the Economist Intelligence Unit warned that if present trends continue, many developing nations could be forced to wait until 2023 or beyond for an adequate supply of vaccines.

“People around the world are dying needlessly because of Big Pharma’s greed,” said Alex Lawson, executive director of Social Security Works. “President Biden must lead the WTO to enact a plan to vaccinate the world and end the pandemic by distributing know-how and manufacturing to all countries that can help.”

This article was first published at Common Dreams and is reproduced under a Creative Commons licence.

See also-It Was Entirely Avoidable’: Rich Countries Blamed as New Covid
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( With a possible new Covid strain developing ‘vaccination for all’ is more important that ever. Pearls and Irritations has been highlighting this issue for over a year. Our media has shown little interest or concern.John Menadue)

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