All of the Democrats who are among Congress’s top recipients of pharmaceutical industry cash have yet to endorse waiving the rules on intellectual property rights for the COVID-19 vaccines that many experts say stand in the way of needed production.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) plans to unveil a letter to President Joe Biden on Tuesday calling for the White House to temporarily lift Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) that prevent many developing countries from manufacturing COVID-19 vaccines or treatments. The letter specifically calls for Biden to heed the appeals of India, South Africa and nearly 100 other developing countries that are asking for the waiver as they confront COVID-19 crises with far fewer resources.
A total of 110 of the 218 House Democrats, including Schakowsky, have signed the letter, ensuring it will have the support of a majority of the House Democratic Caucus.
But none of the nine House Democrats among Congress’s top 25 recipients of donations from pharmaceutical industry PACs in the 2020 election cycle have signed the letter.
As HuffPost reported last Wednesday, Democratic Reps. Scott Peters (Calif.) and Ron Kind (Wis.) ― Nos. 7 and 19, respectively, on the top 25 list ― have actually solicited support for another letter to Biden asking him to not waive the intellectual property rules.
HuffPost reached out to the remaining seven Democrats on the list to ask why they were not supporting the intellectual property waiver.
The offices of House Energy and Commerce Committee chair Frank Pallone of New Jersey (No. 4), House Ways and Means Committee chair Richard Neal of Massachusetts (No. 6), and Reps. Anna Eshoo of California (No. 9), Brad Schneider of Illinois (No. 20), Kurt Schrader of Oregon (No. 22) and Raul Ruiz of California (No. 25) did not respond to HuffPost’s requests for comment.
The office of Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Florida, another top recipient of pharmaceutical industry PAC contributions and co-chair of the influential centrist Blue Dog Coalition, did not respond either.
While she agrees with the overall goal, it is not clear that the currently proposed broad TRIPS waiver is the fastest method to accomplish this, given manufacturing intricacies and access to raw materials. Rachel Kingery, spokesperson for Rep. Robin Kelly (D-Ill.)
A spokesperson for Rep. Robin Kelly of Illinois (No. 17) provided a statement that mirrored what the pharmaceutical industry itself has been saying in opposition to the temporary waiver: That it would not alleviate the current shortage of vaccines.
“While she agrees with the overall goal, it is not clear that the currently proposed broad TRIPS waiver is the fastest method to accomplish this, given manufacturing intricacies and access to raw materials,” spokesperson Rachel Kingery said. “Congresswoman Kelly believes U.S. companies should step up domestic production, assist other nations in the development of effective COVID-19 vaccinations and increase funding to COVAX to protect global health.”
COVAX, the global vaccine sharing effort sponsored by wealthy nations, has elicited criticism for the slow speed of its vaccine rollout. While the world is in need of 9 billion more vaccine doses to meet a goal of administering 10 billion doses by the end of the year, COVAX has distributed just 49 million vaccine doses thus far.
Proponents of the waiver, which would both allow developing nations to replicate patented technologies without fear of legal retaliation and provide them with the leverage to negotiate voluntary partnerships with U.S. and European drugmakers, insist that it is necessary if the world is to have any hope of containing COVID-19 as it continues to mutate.
Rather than reflect genuine concerns that a waiver will not be a panacea for the vaccine shortage, these advocates argue that the major pharmaceutical companies simply do not want to sell the drugs in poorer countries at discounted rates or to risk opening the door to generic competition in wealthier nations.
“The greed of Pharma means that they are effectively blocking the manufacture of the necessary supply,” said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch.
In the Senate, Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) also sent a letter to Biden endorsing the patent waiver that attracted the support of nine other members of the Senate Democratic Caucus. Even the pivotal centrist Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has expressed openness to the idea.
HuffPost reached out to Senate Finance Committee chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), whose panel has jurisdiction over international trade, and Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a Biden confidant, to ask them to explain why they have yet to sign Sanders’s letter or otherwise indicate interest in waiving the COVID-19 vaccine patents. Neither of them responded.
Coons, who ranks 16th among recipients of pharmaceutical industry PAC money of anyone in Congress ― and the only Democratic senator to make the top 25 in the 2020 election cycle ― has gone out of his way to defend keeping the intellectual property rules in place.
Speaking alongside pharmaceutical executives at an April event at the Center for Strategic International Studies, a Washington think tank, Coons said he was “very concerned” about the “external and internal attack” directed at the U.S. intellectual property regime.
He reiterated the pharmaceutical industry’s talking point that the intellectual property waiver is not a “critical impediment” to manufacturing enough COVID-19 vaccines and concluded by arguing that patents and other vehicles that effectively grant monopolies to drugmakers are essential for the United States to compete with China and to counteract the “divisive” environment on display on Jan. 6 when the U.S. Capitol was attacked.
“A central part of being successful in this competition is continuing with our constitutionally created protected property right of a patent,” Coons said.
The speech by Coons was enough to elicit a rarity for any Democrat: a rave review from the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, which prayed that, on the matter of intellectual property, Biden “ignores the left and heeds Mr. Coons.”
Wallach made the opposite case, warning that if Biden fails to do everything within his power to vaccinate the world, he stands to suffer blowback from a resurgence of the pandemic that ultimately reaches U.S. shores.
“Biden is getting quite good marks ― even from a lot of Republicans ― about how he’s taken on COVID,” Wallach said. “All of that positivity and the health gains could be lost if they’re not paying attention and a vaccine-resistant variant ends up brewing someplace else, inevitably spreading worldwide and we all end up on lockdown again.”
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