Janine Jackson interviews Laurie Wallach about vaccine equality June 10, 2022, Episode From CounterSpin. This is slightly edited text.
Janine Jackson: World Health Organization announce Nearly 15 million people have died as a direct or indirect result of the Covid-19 pandemic. This is almost three times what has been officially reported. The group said the information not only illustrates the devastating impact of the pandemic, but also “the need for all countries to invest in more resilient health systems that can maintain essential health services during crises, including stronger health information systems.”
Well, certainly that includes tests, treatments, and vaccines, and there is a role for the press out there in appropriately reporting on the importance and availability of these public health tools. In particular, there are Covid vaccines that appear to be effective, yet large parts of the world’s population remain unimmunized. What stands in the way, simply put?
Our next guest was working on this question. Laurie Wallach has been decoding trade policy for decades. She is now the CEO of Rethink trade. She joins us on the phone. Welcome back CounterSpinLaurie Wallach.
Laurie Wallach: Thank you very much.
JJ: At night and noon we hear about the markets and about supply and demand. If there is a need, suppliers will rush to fill it, and everyone will be satisfied.
Well, there is hardly a more obvious need than the need for Covid vaccines. So, if you’re trying to detail for people, why are so many people, particularly in the Global South, still not immune, what’s the deal? How do we explain it?
LW: The market does not work in the face of monopolies. And in the case of these drugs, a handful of drug companies that are now billionaires have a monopoly on these life-saving drugs.
So, for example, we know by far that the most effective vaccines are mRNA vaccines, including one developed using US government funds by Moderna. And we now know that there are new billionaires from our moderns Profits selling itModerna simply refused to license the information to increase production worldwide so that a larger volume of this vaccine could be produced.
Part of the obstacle is the introduction of big pharma, in so-called free trade agreements, binding obligations for states to maintain and enforce these monopolies, which the government has created Monopoly licenses are called patentsand other forms of intellectual property monopoly that have made it possible for literally a few large corporations to control supply, control production, and have a situation where less than 20% of people are vaccinated in developing countries.
JJ: I don’t want to overuse the word “pervert”, but it’s hard to get past it in this case. Even people who believe, you know, if you build a better mousetrap, you should get the profit from that, they can see that this is not a system that works in a way that it should be for the greater good.
So I guess I ask, what’s the pressure against this? It is clear that people realize that this patent protection slows down and harms human life all over the world. And what were the efforts to undo it?
LW: I will discuss it, but I just want to say one thing, which is that the problem at hand does not preclude someone’s creativity or invention. It takes away the ability to control how much is made.
LW: So these companies will get paid; They will receive a license fee. They won’t be able to do that so they can reduce supply and raise prices. Or, in this case, they don’t want to share the technological innovation of the mRNA platform, because they map out the next drug, they can also monopolize it.
So if the many companies around the southern world that can make these wonderful drugs learn how to do it, companies like Pfizer and Moderna put their theory in, the next drug, if it’s for cancer, if anything, they won’t be able to control. It’s diabolical.
And so, in the face of that, there has been a great drive in many countries to do three things. The first is to obtain a temporary emergency exemption from the rules in the World Trade Organization that require each signatory to the World Trade Organization to impose monopolies on pharmaceutical companies.
Second: government technology transfer. The United States government has the authority, under laws such as the Defense Production Act—particularly in relation to the Moderna vaccine, for which the United States paid 100% for its development and then paid for all of its doses—access to information that the government may require, as a national emergency, a license; They can get them to do so, even if a WTO waiver is not made for worldwide access.
Hence the third rank is adequate funding, so, although it is not a substitute for countries’ ability to make their own, sufficient doses can be purchased and shared around the world. And currently, on all three fronts, there has been a complete failure.
And this particular weekend, the WTO battle is coming to a head over whether or not the European Union, the United Kingdom and Switzerland will ban the rest of the world on behalf of the big pharma. The United States has taken a fairly constructive position on this, yet it can be blocked, so that we move forward into another pandemic year with a situation that means, not only that people will die needlessly and their livelihoods destroyed, but new. Variables will appear. Anywhere around the world where the Covid outbreak is, is where the new variants are – they can come back to bring in people who have been vaccinated for the current variants.
He is myopic on every front, not to say something immoral.
J: Is there a fallacy at the heart of this? Can we give up on the idea that if manufacturers don’t get exclusive intellectual property rights, they won’t be incentivized to do anything? I’ve already pointed out that this is, in fact, the general spending that was used to create some of this stuff.
But I still feel when you read the media coverage, you get an idea, you know, if we don’t motivate these companies, they won’t do the research. And I feel like this is just a cruel perpetual fallacy that we see over and over again in the media, in terms of medical research and things like that.
LW: Well, it is not a choice between zero-yielding investment or price gouging and killing people. There is a happy medium, where, of course, people who made ingenious inventions should be rewarded for their creativity and hard work. But with the ability, for example, in the face of a pandemic to simply control medicines that mean people will live or die, the global economy will or won’t collapse — and that’s an emergency circumstance, there had to be an emergency waiver.
Again, the companies were going to get paid, so it wasn’t a question of whether or not they would lose control of their inventions. But once rich countries that could have paid, can people in poor countries, who will never pay the same amount per dose because their governments can’t afford it, can they access at a lower price? Can they reach, because there will be more volume at all costs?
In most of the developing world, the most effective mRNA vaccines have been virtually impossible to obtain. And now with Paxlovid, treatment is the difference between Covid being a death sentence and Covid being something that will make you uncomfortable if you are someone who is at high risk, or if you are someone who has not been vaccinated, Pfizer licenses production of this drug in only the poorest countries. So if you are in a middle income country, you simply won’t get it. It is simply not available.
This is not a matter of reward or no reward. This is extreme greed, where you can get a reward and people live. That is why we need to replace our current intellectual property system to make it more balanced, so that innovation is rewarded but medicine is available at prices that people, especially in developing countries, can pay.
JJ: Let me just ask you, finally, if you’re talking to reporters about who — you know, they’re going to cover the story, the case. But are there ways and questions they may ask that they have not, that might shed more informative light on this?
LW: I think there has been a lot of controversy about what’s going on. Here’s the truth: at the World Trade Organization in October 2020, South Africa and India proposed a short-term emergency waiver of all intellectual property provisions needed to be able to make these mRNA vaccines.
And it’s not just patents. It is a confirmed technological transfer of undisclosed information. It’s emphatic copyright provisions, certainly so-called “industrial design exclusivities,” and that was for the duration of the pandemic, in the short term, and it would have made a huge difference in who would live and who would die.
And here we are, almost two years later, and this emergency waiver mechanism is unusable. and the The press did not really cover Why about this. And in fact, they keep reporting things that aren’t.
For example, right now, the WTO has shifted from focusing on saving lives to preserving its reputation. The Director-General of the World Trade Organization has put forward a holiday tax subsidized only by the European Union, i.e. the main barrier to the actual removal required of intellectual property barriers, and is trying to push that into approval, to declare that the WTO is appropriate, and it locks up the countries, the major developing countries, which have had Role in this debate for two years, locked up in the hall. Literally they will not be allowed into the negotiating room.
It’s about how “we came to a compromise.” In fact, the text that is now being explicitly discussed is neither a concession nor removes any intellectual property barriers, nor will it put a single vaccine within the reach of the developing world.
Many reporters describe it as a concession. When there is no one, truly? Keep calling it a compromise, when there’s no compromise, keep pretending that negotiations on WTO intellectual property barriers that get out of the way are still going on, when they aren’t, and they don’t hold the pharmaceutical companies, the EU or WTO employees to account world Trade.
In addition, the US has basically not, in the past six months, played a big role, as the US position has been that any WTO deal can only be about vaccines, not about treatments. Thus, essentially, under any circumstances under the United States’ viewpoint, therapies are excluded from this potential capacity for scaling, meaning that the US strategy, which is to treat, test, test and treat, will not be available to most of the world. .
It just doesn’t have to be. So what we’re seeing happening around the world is basically states are ready to escalate, and so are civil society activists. If you can’t use due process, it’s time to take direct action, ideally overcoming all these limits, but if necessary just to ignore them. Basically direct action to get the drugs, and letting the lawsuits fall for later.
JJ: okay then. We’ll bring this back up again in the future, but we’ll end it here for now.
We were talking with Laurie Wallach. She’s the CEO of Rethink Trade, online at RethinkTrade.org. Laurie Wallach, thank you so much for joining us this week CounterSpin.
LW: Thank you.