Two House Democrats are soliciting support for a letter calling on President Joe Biden to continue denying developing countries’ request for a temporary waiver from intellectual property rules that severely limit their ability to mass produce COVID-19 vaccines developed in the United States and Europe.
The Democrats, Reps. Scott Peters of California and Ron Kind of Wisconsin, were both among Congress’ top 25 recipients of contributions from pharmaceutical industry political action committees in the 2020 election cycle.
A draft of their letter, which is backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a powerful big business lobby, uses pharmaceutical industry talking points to argue for preserving a status quo that many experts believe could cost the world countless lives and squander a narrow window for achieving global herd immunity.
“We remain concerned ... about proposals from India and South Africa to push the World Trade Organization (WTO) Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) to waive critical intellectual property provisions of the TRIPS Agreement regarding COVID response,” the draft states. “While we agree with the parties’ purported objectives of expanding distribution as rapidly as possible, we believe eliminating those protections would not advance that goal and may even serve to delay global distribution of vaccines.”
The draft praises Biden for refusing to grant the waiver thus far and claims that acceding to developing countries’ demands would actually jeopardize global efforts to manufacture 10 billion vaccine doses by the end of this year.
“We are concerned that diverting resources to build, staff, and equip a new supply chain would serve only to disrupt the progress already made in building the global capacity to vaccinate every adult worldwide,” it states. “Further, intellectual property protections have hastened the development of new COVID vaccines and treatments in record time, and they have also allowed for the sharing of technology and information to scale up vaccine manufacturing to meet global needs.”
Several of the claims in the letter are dubious.
Publicly funded research has played as big a role as intellectual property protections, if not bigger, in the development of the COVID-19 vaccines. Pfizer and Biontech developed their vaccine with the help of funding from the German government. And both Moderna and Johnson & Johnson received billions of dollars in research and development aid from the U.S. government.
“Intellectual property protections have hastened the development of new COVID vaccines and treatments in record time.”
In addition, current vaccine production capacity does not appear to be on track to meet global demand. Global vaccine production capacity is currently at 3.8 billion doses a year, according to the World Trade Organization’s estimate. And since vaccinations began in December, just over 1 billion shots have been administered, suggesting that the world is very far from achieving its 10-billion dose target.
Contrary to the lawmakers’ suggestion that “equipping a new supply chain” would deprive pharmaceutical companies of scarce resources, some American and European manufacturers have already partnered with drug makers in developing countries to expand production.
But without the freedom to scale production in accordance with domestic need and build on vaccine research conducted in wealthier nations, countries like India and South Africa ― the lead proponents of the waiver ― say that they will be unable to scale up production to meet demand.
More than 175 former heads of state and Nobel laureates, including former United Kingdom Prime Minister Gordon Brown and women’s rights advocate Malala Yousafzai, expressed their support for these countries’ demands in an open letter to Biden on April 14.
“A WTO waiver is a vital and necessary step to bringing an end to this pandemic,” the signatories said.
The letter from the prominent global figures references lessons learned from the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1990s, when pharmaceutical prices prevented millions of people in developing countries from accessing life-saving medications.
Spokespeople for Peters, a member of the influential Energy and Commerce Committee, and Kind, a member of the Ways and Means Committee, which oversees international trade, did not respond to HuffPost’s requests for comment.
Notwithstanding the pair’s letter, support for a temporary waiver on the WTO’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) or patent rules is growing among Democrats in Congress.
In an April 15 letter, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and nine other liberal senators called on Biden to back the temporary waiver. On the House side, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) has accumulated more than 60 signatures on an analogous letter she plans to send Biden.
Even centrist Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who voted to confirm a former pharmaceutical executive as secretary of Health and Human Services in 2018, has signaled his openness to the waiver.
“We took all the risk, the United States government, the Treasury, and it should come out in a cheaper form for Americans and for the rest of the world,” he told The Intercept.
The decision to even begin negotiations over waiving the WTO’s intellectual property rules must be unanimous among WTO member states. Currently, the United States and a handful of other wealthy nations are blocking the proposal from real consideration.
Thus far, Biden has resisted appeals to clear a path for the waiver, while insisting that the U.S. will eventually share vaccines with poorer nations.
“I think we’ll be in a position to be able to share vaccines as well as know-how with other countries who are in real need,” Biden said on Tuesday.