Democrats push Biden to take on Pharma to boost global vaccine supplies

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President Joe Biden is facing growing pressure from Democrats to ensure that billions of people in poor countries have access to Covid-19 vaccines as the United States steps up its production and distribution of the shots.

Biden has taken some first steps toward helping other countries by pledging $4 billion to an international effort to ensure equal access to vaccines globally and offering to provide Mexico and Canada access to U.S. supplies of the AstraZeneca shot.

But Democratic lawmakers and advocacy groups are pressing him to go further by supporting a request by India, South Africa and 55 other countries for the World Trade Organization to waive patent protections on vaccines. Those countries argue that would enable manufacturers around the world to copy the formulas and massively increase production.

Drug companies, including the ones making the vaccines now authorized in the U.S., widely oppose the move, which they say would undermine the global response to the pandemic and not have the intended effect of speeding up production. The Trump administration opposed it at the WTO. But House Democrats say they have already collected close to a hundred signatures on a letter urging Biden to change the U.S. position. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) also have weighed in. Those critics accuse the drug companies of prioritizing profits over saving lives.

“We need to make the vaccines available everywhere if we’re going to crush this virus, and we need to make the public policy choices both in the U.S. and at the WTO that puts patients first,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), one of the signatories on the House letter and chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

The WTO has been deadlocked on the issue for six months, and so far the appeal from lawmakers and over 400 health, labor, religious and other groups has not persuaded Biden to change the U.S. position against the waiver. Since the WTO operates by consensus, all 164 members would have to agree to support the measure for it to take effect. But backers of the waiver request believe a U.S. switch in their direction would have a transformative effect on other opponents.

For now, Biden administration officials only say they will make a decision based on their analysis of how effective the waiver would be. They also point to Biden’s pledge to provide $4 billion in contributions to COVAX, the international alliance to distribute vaccines to 92 low- and middle-income countries.

“The top priority of the United States is saving lives and ending the pandemic, including by investing in COVAX and surging vaccine production and delivery,” said Adam Hodge, a spokesperson for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. “We are exploring every avenue to coordinate with our global partners and are evaluating the efficacy of this specific proposal by its true potential to save lives.”

The Trump administration’s opposition to the waiver was a rare instance of solidarity with the European Union, which along with Japan, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and several other WTO members also opposes waiving the intellectual property protections.

However, it is typical of rich countries, which host major pharmaceutical companies, to oppose any challenges to intellectual property rights from poorer nations.

The bloc of mostly developed countries argue strong patent protections have been key to the rapid development of the vaccines, and issuing a broad waiver would undermine the ability of the industry to respond to a future pandemic.

Top executives at 31 pharmaceutical companies, in a letter to Biden earlier this month, said waiver proponents have offered no evidence that patent and other protections are what is currently hindering vaccine availability, rather than the expected lag between developing the products and ramping up production to meet global demand.

"Despite the immense challenge of scaling manufacturing on novel technologies, current estimates are that Covid-19 vaccine manufacturers will supply approximately 10 billion doses by the end of 2021, enough to vaccinate the entire current global vaccine eligible population," they added.

At least two companies — AstraZeneca and Novavax — have allowed manufacturers in India, Japan and South Korea to produce their vaccines under voluntary licensing agreements.

But the World Health Organization, which supports India and South Africa’s waiver request, argues the terms of the voluntary license schemes being offered by some patent holders are not sufficient to address the current pandemic.

The Vatican, which has observer status at the WTO, has also jumped into the debate. Quoting Pope Francis, the Holy See’s representative argued during a meeting last month of the WTO’s intellectual property council that the world should not allow the law of the marketplace and patents to take precedence over the health of humanity.

Supporters of the waiver hope those and other moral arguments will resonate with Biden, who is the U.S.’s second Roman Catholic president and was photographed on his first day in office sitting in front of a picture of himself and the pontiff.

They also make an economic argument, saying any loss of pharmaceutical company profits would be more than offset by global economic gains that come from a quicker recovery, as well as the number of lives saved.

The next meeting to examine the issue at the WTO will take place over two days in mid-April. That gives Katherine Tai, Biden’s newly confirmed U.S. trade representative, some time to dig into the issue. If there’s no resolution, Biden could confront the issue head on later this year, when G-20 leaders hold their annual meeting in October in Rome. Both South Africa and India are members of the leading economy group, along the United States, China, Germany, France and the EU as a whole. India also could raise the issue when it attends the G7 summit in June as an invited guest.

Among major developing countries, only Brazil is openly opposed, while China has said the waiver request represents a good starting point for talks on any emergency trade measures that should be taken. India, a major generic drug manufacturer, claims the support of more than 100 countries for the proposal.

The WTO’s new director general, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, former co-chair of the alliance behind COVAX, has suggested a “third way” solution to encourage vaccine patent holders to enter into voluntary licensing agreements with drug manufacturers around the world in order to scale up production.

A group of four Republican senators led by Tom Cotton of Arkansas also have urged Biden not to support the waiver.

"Waiving all rights to intellectual property would end the innovation pipeline and stop the development of new vaccines or boosters to address variants in the virus. It also wouldn’t increase the supply of vaccines because of the tremendous time and resources needed to build new manufacturing plants and acquire the know-how to produce these complex medicines," the senators wrote.

But proponents of the waiver say the drug manufacturers cannot be trusted when they say 10 billion doses will be available by the end of year. Other estimates indicate it could be as late as 2023 or 2024 until there are enough vaccines to treat the world’s population, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said.

“Time is also of the essence right now because there are the variants that are developing,” Schakowsky said. “The administration has made some moves in the right direction. But the real answer is to allow for the manufacture of these vaccines.”

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