Pressure Builds on Biden to End TRIPS Waiver Impasse, Enable Equitable Access to COVID Vaccines
President Joe Biden speaking in Germany after a G7 meeting.

Pressure is mounting on US President Joe Biden to provide global leadership to ensure equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines in the face of the European Commission’s refusal to support a waiver on intellectual property rights.

Biden is expected to host a global leaders’ summit on COVID-19 alongside the United Nations General Assembly next week, and US officials are lobbying countries to support targets to end the pandemic centred on how to get 70% of people vaccinated by late 2022.

African leaders hope that Biden’s COVID-19 summit will lead to more equitable access to vaccines:

WHO & African Leaders Pin Hopes on Biden’s ‘Global COVID-19 Summit’ for ‘New Deal’ on Pandemic Response  

Negotiations over the suspension of intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics, the TRIPS waiver, have stalled at the World Trade Organization (WTO) in the face of opposition from the European Union.

But if the US put forward a text on waiver, this would reinvigorate the talks, appealed South African trade ministry advisor Zane Dangor on Tuesday. South Africa and India are co-sponsors of the waiver.

“Action by the US will be particularly potent to shift the needle in the negotiations and make people come around the table and discuss these issues,” said Dangor, one of the key officials involved in the WTO TRIPS waiver negotiations.

In May, Biden took the world by surprise when he announced US support for the waiver proposal – although only in relation to COVID-19 vaccines. But the European Commission, particularly Germany, has refused to budget.

“The European Union would like to kick the discussions further down the road,” said Dangor, adding that the EU had made it known this week that it was not in favour of a decision on the TRIPS waiver being made at the upcoming WTO Ministerial on 30 November.

Zane Dangor, Special Adviser to South  Africa’s Trade Minister.

“We need commitment on a text from the US that can be tabled and negotiated with South Africa, India and other co-sponsors so that we can have an outcome and move to get to the business of actually ensuring that we get jabs in arms of those who need most and have equitable access,” Dangor told a press briefing organised by Public Citizen.

“Not only do we need to get the WTO waiver done, but we require vaccine recipes to be shared via broad tech transfer to speed expansion of COVID medicine supplies,” added Dangor.

In July, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that it had established a “tech transfer hub” in South Africa to enable African companies produce mRNA vaccines – but the mRNA manufacturers, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, have refused to join the hub.

Last week, in response to a recent Health Policy Watch question, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said: “I’m not sure what is the point of transferring technology that it is going to take years to transfer. And, by the way, this is what we do. I’m not sure I understand what they want, to give it someone else to do?”

European Commission counter-proposal is ‘big air’

Belgian Green Sarah Matthieu, a Member of the European Parliament, believes that the European Commission’s opposition to the waiver is “economic”, based on lobbying and financial support from the pharmaceutical companies. BioNTech is a particularly big donor of Germany’s ruling Christian Democratic Union Party, she added.

“We continue to see the Commission really putting big pharma over people’s health. It continues to push its own proposal, that is, if I can say it bluntly, big air. It’s not going to change anything,” Matthieu told a media briefing on Monday organised by Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF), Health Action International, Public Citizen and Third World Network.

Although the European Parliament has passed a resolution in support of starting text-based negotiations on the waiver, this is continually downplayed by commissioners, she added.

Matthieu said that the German elections on 26 September may shift the power balance it that country and change the position of Germany on the waiver.

US Congressman Ro Khanna said that Biden had shown “strong leadership on the TRIPS waiver” but he now had to “convince our European allies, who are often fond of lecturing the United States about moral responsibility, to live up to theirs”.

Khanna added that the US had been “instrumental in the development of these vaccines”, including by “funding some of the critical research” and “providing purchase agreements that mitigated the risk for pharmaceutical companies”.

Although the US government has indicated it would only support a waiver for vaccines, Khanna told the MSF briefing that this should extend to therapeutics.

“More broadly, we need to have a better system for how we incentivize the production and distribution of drugs to the poor and for issues of that really affect large numbers of population,” said Khanna.

“A purely for-profit model of developing medicines may lead to an over-investment in acne treatment and an under-investment of treatment on some of the biggest diseases.

“Not only do we need a TRIPS waiver, but we need to think about how can we incentivize the development and the production of medicine that actually are affecting the urgent needs of many people in the United States and around the world.”

Waiver debate is about pharma profit, says Stiglitz

Professor Joseph Stiglitz

Nobel laureate and Columbia University economist Professor Joseph Stiglitz described the waiver debate as being about the ability of the drug companies to exercise monopoly power to get substantial profits, rather than a reasonable return on their investment.

“Drug companies’ concern is maximising profits. That’s their business model. And maximising profits means restricting supply because by restricting supply, you increase price, and by increasing price you increase profits,” he stressed.

Referring to Pfizer’s recent talk about selling its vaccine for $175 a dose, Stiglitz said this was based on the belief that there was going to be a vaccine shortage, which would enable the company to extract a monopoly price.

Like Khanna, Stiglitz stressed that the development of the COVID-19 vaccines was an international effort that had involved significant investment from various governments as well as scientists from around the world.

“Germany’s particular view on this is especially peculiar because the German company, BioNTech, has already sold its international rights to Pfizer so the waiver is not even going to affect its profits,” he said, describing the EU’s opposition to the waiver as “objectionable” and “unconscionable”.

Confusion about TRIPS waiver

Stiglitz stressed that there was also confusion about the TRIPS waiver.

“First, this is not the abolition of property rights. [Pharmaceutical companies] still get compensated for using their intellectual property rights. So, it’s not taking away their property rights. Its just saying we are in an emergency, and in this emergency, intellectual property rights have to be available more widely,” Stiglitz told the MSF  briefing.

“Secondly, it’s not even a change in the intellectual framework because, since the beginning of the WTO, we’ve recognised the principle of compulsory licenses. This is effectively just a compulsory license…  to lower transaction costs. Lower transaction costs in the midst of the pandemic, where there’s a kind of urgency that we don’t normally have, is absolutely essential,” he added.

“We’ve enacted voluntary licenses. The world has debated this. It debated it when the WTO TRIPS initially adopted it. It was really debated that in the context of HIV/AIDS, which reaffirmed the principle of compulsory licenses.”

“We are in the midst of what some people call the new cold war. On the one hand, there are authoritarian governments like Russia and China, and then, on the other hand, there are democracies. We would like the democracies to win, but we’re not putting a good face on democracy when we say our democracies put profits over lives.

“Russia has been very actively engaged in vaccine diplomacy. It’s made its vaccine available, say in a country like Argentina. But not only has it made its vaccine available, it’s actually actively engaged in transferring technology and enabling countries to build plants to produce the vaccine. And I’m afraid we’re losing this particular battle.”

Civil society groups demonstrate outside embassies of countries that oppose a temporary WTO patent waiver on COVID-19 health products.

Image Credits: CNBC, Munich Security Conference, Tadeau Andre/MSF .

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