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Pelosi Lands In Taiwan, Defying China's Threatened Military Action

Taipei (AFP) - US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi landed in Taiwan late Tuesday, defying a string of increasingly stark warnings and threats from China that have sent tensions between the world's two superpowers soaring.

Pelosi, second in line to the presidency, is the highest-profile elected US official to visit Taiwan in 25 years and Beijing has made clear that it regards her presence as a major provocation, setting the region on edge.

Live broadcasts showed the 82-year-old lawmaker, who flew on a US military aircraft, being greeted at Taipei's Songshan Airport by foreign minister Joseph Wu.

"Our delegation's visit to Taiwan honors America's unwavering commitment to supporting Taiwan's vibrant democracy," she said in a statement upon her arrival, adding that her visit "in no way contradicts" US policy towards Taipei and Beijing.

Taiwan said the trip displayed "rock solid" support from Washington.

Pelosi is currently on a tour of Asia and while neither she nor her office confirmed the Taipei visit in advance, multiple US and Taiwanese media outlets reported it was on the cards -- triggering days of mounting anger from Beijing.

China's military said it was on "high alert" and would "launch a series of targeted military actions in response" to the visit.

It promptly announced plans for a series of military exercises in waters around the island to begin on Wednesday, including "long-range live ammunition shooting" in the Taiwan Strait.

"Those who play with fire will perish by it," Beijing's foreign ministry added.

Taiwan's defence ministry said more than 21 Chinese military aircraft had flown on Tuesday into Taiwan's air defence identification zone -- an area wider than its territorial airspace that overlaps with part of China's own air defence zone.

No Need For 'Crisis'

China considers self-ruled, democratic Taiwan as its territory and has vowed to one day seize the island, by force if necessary.

It tries to keep Taiwan isolated on the world stage and opposes countries having official exchanges with Taipei.

In a call with US President Joe Biden last week, Chinese President Xi Jinping warned Washington against "playing with fire" on Taiwan.

While the Biden administration is understood to be opposed to Pelosi's Taiwan stop, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said she was entitled to go where she pleased.

"There is no reason for this to erupt into conflict. There's no change to our policy," he told CNN shortly after Pelosi's arrival.

The last speaker of the US House of Representatives to visit Taiwan was Newt Gingrich in 1997.

Kirby reiterated that US policy was unchanged toward Taiwan.

This means support for its self-ruling government, while diplomatically recognising Beijing over Taipei and opposing a formal independence declaration by Taiwan or a forceful takeover by China.

Russia's foreign ministry called Pelosi's visit a "clear provocation," and said Beijing "has the right to take necessary measures to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity over the Taiwan issue."

China has refused to condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine and has been accused of providing diplomatic cover for the Kremlin by blasting Western sanctions and arms sales to Kyiv.

All Eyes On Taiwan

Pelosi left Kuala Lumpur Tuesday after meeting Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri and Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah.

So many people were tracking the US military plane ferrying her on FlightRadar that the website said some users experienced outages.

The plane took a circuitous route that avoided the South China Sea -- which Beijing claims -- before heading up the east coast of the Philippines.

Press access around Pelosi has been tightly restricted and limited to a handful or short statements confirming meetings with officials.

Her itinerary includes stops in South Korea and Japan -- but the prospect of a Taiwan trip dominated attention.

Taipei's government had stayed silent on whether she would visit but news kept leaking out.

The capital's famous Taipei 101 skyscraper was illuminated with the words "Speaker Pelosi... Thank You" on Tuesday night an hour before Pelosi's plane arrived.

- 'Seek to punish Taiwan' -

Taiwan's 23 million people have long lived with the possibility of an invasion, but that threat has intensified under Xi, China's most assertive ruler in a generation.

"Beijing shouldn't get to decide who can visit Taiwan or how the US should interact with Taiwan," Wang Ting-yu, a lawmaker from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, told AFP ahead of the visit.

"I think China's open intimidation is counter-effective."

Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia programme at the US-based German Marshall Fund think tank, said the probability of Beijing choosing war was "low".

"But the probability that... (China) will take a series of military, economic, and diplomatic actions to show strength & resolve is not insignificant," she wrote on Twitter.

Taipei's Council of Agriculture on Tuesday said China had suspended the import of some Taiwanese goods, including some fishery products, tea and honey. The council said China cited regulatory breaches.

Pelosi's potential visit has been preceded by a flurry of military activity across the region that highlights how combustible the issue of Taiwan is.

Climate Envoy Kerry Vows US Will Meet Emissons Goal Despite Court Setback

Washington (AFP) - US climate envoy John Kerry vowed Friday the United States will meet goals it submitted to the United Nations on slashing greenhouse gas emissions, despite a Supreme Court ruling that curtailed the government's powers.

"We are determined to achieve our goals. We can achieve our goals," Kerry told AFP.

"But obviously it would help if we had a majority of the Supreme Court in the United States of America that actually understood the gravity of the situation and was more willing to try to be helpful rather than present a hurdle of one kind or another," he said.

President Joe Biden, after defeating the climate-skeptic Donald Trump, in April last year said the United States would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50 to 52 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels, dramatically increasing the climate ambitions of the world's largest economy.

He submitted the so-called nationally determined contribution to the UN climate body in line with the 2015 Paris Agreement, the landmark deal brokered by Kerry when he was secretary of state.

China, the world's largest carbon emitter, called Friday on all nations to live up to Paris commitments, with foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian saying of the United States, "it is not enough to just chant slogans."

Kerry, who has worked with Chinese officials in his climate role despite soaring tensions between Beijing and Washington, said that he was "not surprised by the messaging" from the Asian power.

"We will show China precisely how we're going to get the job done," Kerry said.

Stephane Dujarric, the spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, called the Supreme Court decision "a setback in our fight against climate change."

Why Biden Proposes Drilling

Despite Biden's pledges to wean the United States off fossil fuels, the Interior Department on Friday released a five-year proposal that would authorize offshore oil and gas drilling in federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska, although it would still ban drilling in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

The proposal comes amid soaring gas prices and as Biden seeks to woo Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from coal-producing West Virginia with the crucial vote, to back a package that would also boost clean energy.

Environmentalists see the legislation as a last hope amid expectations that Trump's Republican Party will make advances in November congressional elections.

The Supreme Court, finishing a term in which three justices nominated by Trump pushed it sharply to the right, on Thursday cut the wings off a key way in which the government could have tackled climate change without fresh legislation.

In a 6-3 ruling branded "devastating" by Biden, the top court said the Environmental Protection Agency did not have authority to order sweeping cuts on emissions from coal-fired power plants.

"I am convinced -- and our legal people are looking at it very carefully -- that this decision leaves plenty of latitude for us to be able to do a lot of things that we need to do," Kerry said.

Asked about calls by some lawmakers from his Democratic Party for Biden to declare a climate emergency, Kerry said, "I think the president needs to evaluate every option available."

'Pin Into Balloon'

Coal accounts for around 20 percent of US electricity generation -- still roughly on par with renewables. China, despite investing heavily in wind and solar, has also kept building coal production capacity.

But Kerry said that the marketplace showed that coal is not the future.

"Nobody's going to fund any new coal power in the United States -- no bank, no private lender. Coal is the dirtiest fuel in the world," he said.

Scientists warn that the world is far off track in avoiding the worst ravages of climate change including severe heatwaves, floods, droughts, rising sea levels and storm surges.

The Paris accord set the goal of limiting end-of-century warming to two degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels -- and preferably not beyond 1.5 degrees -- but the planet has already warmed by nearly 1.2 Celsius.

Ruth Greenspan Bell, a climate expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said it was difficult for the United States to show climate leadership while also fighting internally on whether it is a priority.

"It's kind of putting a pin into a balloon. There's a little bit less air in the balloon than there was before," she said of the court decision.

"The times call for a moonshot but imagine trying to pull off a moonshot when you are at the same time in a defensive crouch."

Pompeo Torched On Twitter For ‘Epic Freudian Slip’

Mike Pompeo, who served as former U.S. Secretary of State under the Trump administration, caused a bit of confusion with his recent slip-up on live television.

But, according to HuffPost, some critics saw the jaw-dropping slip-up as "a rare moment of honesty" for the former government official who has a history of sharing false narratives. During his appearance on Fox News with Laura Ingraham asked Pompeo: "Why does the left act as if conservatives are a bigger threat to America than the” Chinese Communist Party?"

“Because, in fact, we often are," Pompeo answered before veering off into a rant to explain why he believes the so-called "left" has "'deep ties' to communism,'" The Post notes.


As expected, Twitter users immediately weighed in with their reactions to Pompeo's remarks. One user tweeted, "Having spent two years reporting on Pompeo, I can attest to how dangerous he is. He turned USAID into a rogue playground for right-wing extremists."

Another user wrote, "Wow. He almost accidentally tells the truth for a split second but then ruins it with an avalanche of bullshit. The @GOP is so “anti-communist” that they’ve been compromised by Russia since the mid-90’s."




Printed with permission from Alternet.

Media’s Hunter Biden Frenzy Is Another Whitewater Pseudo-Scandal

Eagerly deploying newsroom resources to the perpetually overblown Hunter Biden story — just as Trump and Fox News kick off a new smear campaign — CNN, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post gladly did the GOP’s bidding this week. Signing off on the idea that the Hunter Biden story remains a scandal simply because Republicans say so, the press has adopted a Whitewater-like obsession with the perpetual dead-end story.

One White House reporter from CBS News, doing his best Fox News impression, asked if President Joe Biden would take the extraordinary step of pardoning Hunter — who is not accused of any crime.

Producing remarkably similar articles that were published nearly simultaneously this week, the CNN.com, Journal, and Post efforts all swung and missed. On paper, there’s no reason why they would pick the exact same moment to churn out nearly 7,000 words of Biden reporting. Especially since none of the investigations dug up any startling revelations about his business dealings from the previous decade.

The copycat nature of the reports raises questions about who the unnamed sources for these stories were, and if there was a coordinated effort by Republican operatives to push simultaneous Hunter updates.

It’s also telling that the hand-delivered leaks arrived the same time we’re learning even more about the Trump White House’s criminality. Specifically, the administration’s clear lawbreaking surrounding the January 6 coup attempt.

This was the big ah-ha moment from the Post piece: “The new documents illustrate the ways in which his family profited from relationships built over Joe Biden’s decades in public service.”

And?

The press can’t provide an answer to the “and” — they can’t find anything illegal or shocking — so they pretend that the business deals themselves are newsworthy and that Hunter’s career requires years of media digging. Meanwhile, the recent revelation about a Supreme Court Justice’s wife strategizing with the Trump White House to overturn an election has evaporated from most newsrooms in less than one week.

After years of media focus there’s nothing to suggest Joe Biden was involved in his son’s business dealings or profited from them in any way, or that the senior Biden ever did anything remotely unethical in connection with Hunter’s career. The son has never run for office, never served in the government, never lobbied to change U.S. policy, and never acted as an advisor to his father in any way.

Reprinted with permission from Press Run

Biden Convenes More Than 100 Nations For World Democracy Summit

Washington (AFP) - President Joe Biden, who took office amid the biggest US political crisis in decades, hosts representatives of more than 100 countries for a democracy summit Thursday that is drawing fire from China and Russia.

The event, held by video link because of the coronavirus pandemic, is billed by the White House as US leadership in an existential struggle between democracies and powerful autocracies or dictatorships.

"Make no mistake, we're at a moment of democratic reckoning," said Uzra Zeya, the Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights.

"It's no secret that democracies around the world are facing increasing challenges from new and novel threats. Countries in virtually every region of the world have experienced degrees of democratic backsliding."

The summit, running Thursday and Friday, will feature opening remarks from Biden at the White House and is set to gather representatives from some 100 governments, as well as NGOs, private businesses, philanthropical organizations and legislatures.

But the fact that Biden continues to face a shocking challenge to US democratic norms from Donald Trump and his attempt to overturn the 2020 election provides a troubling backdrop for the summit.

And even before summit attendees could meet, tensions erupted simply over who should be on -- and off -- the list.

China and Russia, which Biden sees as champions of the autocracies camp, were pointedly left out, something they say is stoking an ideological "rift."

"No country has the right to judge the world's vast and varied political landscape by a single yardstick," wrote ambassadors Anatoly Antonov of Russia and Qin Gang of China in a joint essay last month.

Further prickling Chinese sensibilities, the Biden administration has invited Taiwan -- the democratically ruled island that mainland China considers part of its territory, albeit not yet under its control.

On Monday, the Biden administration also announced it would not send US government officials to the Beijing Winter Olympics in February in protest at human rights abuses, including "genocide" against the Uyghur ethnic group in Xinjiang.

Australia, Britain, and Canada have joined the diplomatic boycott, although the countries' athletes will still compete. Again, Russia joined China in criticizing the decision.

Deciding when other countries should be excluded from the summit for human rights abuses or vote rigging hasn't been any less fraught.

For example, Pakistan and the Philippines are in, while EU member Hungary's nationalist government is out. Brazil's right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro is invited, while the leader of NATO member Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been shunned.

Democracy Problem At Home

The most awkward element to the summit, however, is the fact that Biden is struggling to restore faith in democracy at home, let alone on the other side of the world.

Trump refuses to recognize the results of the 2020 election, in which Biden defeated him.

With the help of sympathetic media outlets, including the powerful Fox News, the former Republican president continues to spread lies about fraud to his tens of millions of supporters.

And with shockwaves from the January 6 storming of Congress by Trump supporters still reverberating, there are growing fears over the 2022 legislative elections and the 2024 presidential vote in which Trump may seek a comeback.

Bruce Jentleson, who teaches political science at Duke University, said the summit was "never a good idea."

"Our problems here are much worse than in any other Western democracy. We had our Capitol building attacked, an attempted coup. We haven’t seen that happen in Paris, or at the Bundestag, or at the EU headquarters in Brussels," he said.

"If we want to compete, we've got to do our best and that is really more up to us within the country than somehow getting 100 leaders together and saying, 'We like democracy.'"

Hands Off General Milley — He Did Nothing Wrong

What Gen. Mark Milley has learned during his most recent years of service is what most Americans have now come to understand about former President Donald Trump. He was always a highly dysfunctional and dangerous leader, or as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi succinctly told the general, "crazy." Treating him as a "normal" president would involve unacceptable risk.

That knowledge had to be a stunning realization for a military leader raised in our country's traditions of strict civilian control of the armed services. When the civilian in control has lost control of himself — and struck many around him as unstable from the beginning — then the burden of averting disaster inevitably falls heavily on flag officers at the pinnacle of the command structure. As the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appointed by Trump himself, Milley confronted the conundrum in the frenzied final days of Trump's misrule.

Anyone who judges what the JCS chairman did must take into account the ominous context of his actions.

According to Peril, the aptly titled new book by the Washington Post's Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, tensions with China increasingly spooked top officials in the Pentagon as Election Day approached in the fall of 2020. Intelligence suggested that the Chinese military feared a U.S. military strike, ordered by Trump, who was screaming about "kung flu," which could erupt into a catastrophic conflict. Not only Milley but also then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper sent calming messages to their Chinese counterparts, urging them not to "over-read" Trump's belligerent threats during the presidential campaign.

It isn't clear whether Esper or Milley told the irrational Trump about those contacts. Milley has described the calls as "routine" and "perfectly within the duties" of his job.

The effects of their soothing outreach dissipated in the election's aftermath, when Trump's mad and bad behavior attempted the ultimate destabilization of the American order, climaxing in the attempted coup of January 6. Observing the potentially lethal mischief of a deranged president, the Chinese government went on red alert.

Woodward and Costa report that on January 8, as the full dimensions of Trump's assault on our political system emerged, Milley reached out to the Chinese leadership again. He offered assurances that Trump would not attack China and therefore China need not contemplate the launch of any preemptive or defensive attack on the U.S. The Post reporters write that Milley promised to deliver a secret warning to the Chinese if any such attack was imminent — although Axios reports a slightly different version, in which the JCS chairman says, "We'll both know if we're going to war ... there's not gonna be some surprise attack and there's no reason for you to do a preemptive strike."

At the same time, Milley sought to reinforce the safeguards within the U.S. chain of command, which are designed to prevent a nuclear strike by a crazed president who attempts to act unilaterally. Milley reiterated to top generals and admirals that they were not to undertake any military action outside those protocols that he feared Trump might attempt, perhaps through a lower-ranking officer.

Unsurprisingly, Trump is enraged by the revelation of his top general's profound sense of responsibility, which has put on public display again the utter disrespect and mistrust he engendered in every experienced official he appointed. They all knew firsthand that he was absurdly unqualified to be president, his incapacity exceeded only by his frightening arrogance. Beyond the forced displays of toadying by his Cabinet, not one person who observed him close-up thought he was competent or rational.

In Trump's cartoon presidency there were endlessly embarrassing and outrageous moments — and then there were other moments when an unstable narcissist with access to the nuclear codes could have become a threat to the world. If Trump had turned into such a menace, Milley's choices were very narrow indeed.

Milley upheld his oath out of patriotism to the highest degree, contrary to the right-wing banana republic chorus that ludicrously claims he committed "treason." Milley aimed to preserve stability and avoid crisis by following all the protocols. He retains the full confidence of President Joe Biden, for good reason.

Our flag officers are not about to follow the impulses of a real traitor like former Gen. Michael Flynn, the convicted criminal pardoned by Trump, who urged that Trump institute martial law. Gen. Mark Milley did his duty and performed under pressure with composure and honor. He is owed thanks, not insults.

To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com

After 20 Years, Swift Taliban Takeover Damages US Credibility

Washington (AFP) - After two decades in Afghanistan, America's longest war was ending with the image of the United States in tatters.

With the swift collapse Sunday of the government in Kabul, the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks that triggered the US invasion will be marked with the Taliban back in control of Afghanistan, despite a cost to the United States of nearly 2,500 lives and more than $2 trillion.

To some observers, the debacle following the withdrawal of US troops will inevitably weaken the United States on the global stage at a time when President Joe Biden was speaking of rallying democracies in the face of a rising China.

"America's credibility as an ally is diminished because of the way the Afghan government was abandoned beginning with the Doha talks," said Husain Haqqani, Pakistan's former ambassador to the United States, referring to the deal last year in the Qatari capital with the Taliban in which the United States set a pullout timeline.

Haqqani, now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, noted how US diplomats in the end could do little more than send tweets urging the Taliban to stop.

"That envoys of the mightiest nation on earth can be duped as they were in Doha, and its leaders ignored so easily as they have been in the final days, will encourage others to engage in duplicitous diplomacy," Haqqani said.

Biden faced heated criticism that the withdrawal was mismanaged, with the United States racing to evacuate its sprawling embassy just a month after he played down fears the Afghan government would crumble quickly.

"It is going to have ramifications not just for Afghanistan," said Representative Liz Cheney, a Republican hawk.

"America's adversaries know they can threaten us, and our allies are questioning this morning whether they can count on us for anything," she said in an ABC interview.

Mixed Message To China

The Biden administration is quick to point out that former president Donald Trump negotiated the Doha deal on the withdrawal and that a majority of the US public favors ending "forever wars."

Trump has repeatedly put the blame on his successor, however, calling for him to resign on Sunday "in disgrace for what he has allowed to happen to Afghanistan."

"What Joe Biden has done with Afghanistan is legendary. It will go down as one of the greatest defeats in American history!" he said in an earlier Sunday statement.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, also speaking on ABC, said the United States had "succeeded" in its primary mission of bringing justice to the Al-Qaeda perpetrators of the September 11 attacks.

"It's also true that there's nothing that our strategic competitors around the world would like more than to see us bogged down in Afghanistan for another five, 10 or 20 years. That is not in the national interest," Blinken said.

China, which the Biden administration sees as the nation's pre-eminent challenge, has already rhetorically pounced, with the nationalistic state-run Global Times publishing an analysis saying Afghanistan showed Washington to be an "unreliable partner that always abandons its partners or allies to seek self-interest."

But Richard Fontaine, chief executive officer of the Center for a New American Security, said it was simplistic to think that China would be emboldened, for example, to move on Taiwan, a self-ruling democracy claimed by Beijing that depends on US weapons.

China may instead see the high cost that the United States is willing to pay in exiting Afghanistan as a sign of seriousness in shifting to the Pacific, Fontaine said.

But Fontaine, who opposed the withdrawal, said the United States was taking major risks by effectively ceding Afghanistan to the Taliban, who never formally broke with Al-Qaeda.

"Now that it looks like the Taliban will be running the country, I think the chances of a terrorist threat are pretty high," he said.

"If that's the case, it could well increase distraction from our focus on the bigger strategic challenges in China."

New Attitude Toward Military Engagement?

Some policymakers argued for maintaining a residual force of some 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, but Biden decided the war was over and he should not risk further US lives.

Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, which supports US military restraint, said the ones who have now lost credibility are advocates for a continued war.

"When you see that the whole thing falls apart in nine days, this was nothing more than a house of cards," Parsi said.

He hoped the withdrawal would help end the view, in Washington but also among allies, that the US military should be the first resort.

"Perhaps some of the external pressures on the United States to act as if it is the answer to everything in the world will reduce."

How Pharma's Greed Is Blocking Vaccination For The Whole World

Reprinted with permission from DC Report

The big drug companies are killing people.

I get to say this about the drug companies, now that President Joe Biden has said that Facebook is killing people by allowing people to use its system to spread lies about the vaccines. There is actually a better case against the drug companies.

After all, they are using their government-granted patent monopolies and their control over technical information about the production of vaccines to limit the supply of vaccines available to the world. As a result, most of the population in the developing world is not yet vaccinated. And, unlike the followers of Donald Trump, people in developing countries are not vaccinated because they can't get vaccines.

The TRIPS Waiver Charade

The central item in the story about speeding vaccine distribution in the developing world is the proposal put forward at the World Trade Organization last October (yes, that would be nine months ago), by India and South Africa, to suspend patents and other intellectual property rules related to vaccines, tests, and treatments for the duration of the pandemic. Since that time, the rich countries have been engaged in a massive filibuster, continually delaying any WTO action on the measure presumably with the hope that it will become largely irrelevant at some point.

The Biden administration breathed new life into the proposal when it endorsed suspending patent rights, albeit just for vaccines. This is the easiest sell for people in the United States and other rich countries since it is not just about humanitarian concerns for the developing world. If the pandemic is allowed to spread unchecked in the developing world it is likely only a matter of time before a vaccine-resistant strain develops. This could mean a whole new round of disease, death, and shutdowns in the rich countries until a new vaccine can be developed and widely distributed.

After the Biden administration indicated its support for this limited waiver, many other rich countries signed on as well. Germany, under longtime Chancellor Angela Merkel, has been largely left alone to aid the pharmaceutical industry in opposing the vaccine waiver.

I had the chance to confront the industry arguments directly last week in a web panel sponsored by the International Association for the Protection of Intellectual Property (link included when it becomes available). It's always educational to see these arguments up close and real people actually making them.

The first line of defense is that the waiver of patent rights by itself does not lead to any increase in vaccine production. This is of course true. Vaccines have to be manufactured; eliminating patent rights is not the same thing as manufacturing vaccines.

But once we get serious, the point is that many potential manufacturers of vaccines are being prevented from getting into the business by the threat of patent infringement lawsuits. In some cases, this might mean reverse-engineering the process, something that might be more feasible with the adenovirus vaccines produced by Johnson and Johnson and AstraZeneca, than with the mRNA vaccines. The manufacturing process for these vaccines is similar to ones already used by manufacturers in several countries in the developing world, as well as several in the rich countries that are not currently producing vaccines against the pandemic.

Another possible outcome from eliminating patent rights is that the drug companies may opt to do more voluntary licensing agreements under the logic that it is better to get something than nothing.

If manufacturers use reverse engineering to produce vaccines, the patent holders get nothing. They would be much better off with a limited royalty on a licensing agreement, even if it is less than they could have expected if they had been able to maintain an unchecked patent monopoly.

[Editor: Reverse engineering is how startup computer companies built clones of the early PCs or personal computers. They bought IBM personal computers and paid one set of engineers to take it apart and describe what they found. Then a second set of engineers used the descriptions to build a personal computer. Voila, no royalties to IBM.]

The other route that suspending patent monopolies may open is one where former employees of the pharmaceutical companies may choose to share their expertise with vaccine manufacturers around the world. In almost all cases these employees would be bound by non-disclosure agreements. This means that sharing their knowledge would subject them to substantial legal liability. But some of them may be willing to take this risk. From the standpoint of potential manufacturers, the patent waiver would mean that they would not face direct liability if they were to go this route, and the countries in which they are based would not face trade sanctions.

Open-Sourcing Technology

While suspending patent rights by itself could lead to a substantial increase in vaccine production, if we took the pandemic seriously, we would want to go much further. We would want to see the technology for producing vaccines fully open-sourced. This would mean posting the details of the manufacturing process on the web, so that engineers all over the world could benefit from them. Ideally, the engineers from the pharmaceutical companies would also be available to do webinars and even in-person visits to factories around the world, with the goal of assisting them in getting their facilities up-to-speed as quickly as possible.

The industry person on my panel didn't seem to understand how governments could even arrange to have this technology open-sourced. He asked rhetorically whether governments can force a company to disclose information.

As a legal matter, governments probably cannot force a company to disclose information that it chooses to keep secret. However, governments can offer to pay companies to share this information. This could mean, for example, that the U.S. government (or some set of rich country governments) offers Pfizer $1-$2 billion to fully open-source its manufacturing technology.

Suppose Pfizer and the other manufacturers refuse reasonable offers. There is another recourse. The governments can make their offers directly to the company's engineers who have developed the technology. They can offer the engineers say $1-$2 million a month for making their knowledge available to the world.

This sharing would almost certainly violate the non-disclosure agreements these engineers have signed with their employers. The companies would almost certainly sue engineers for making public disclosures of protected information. Governments can offer to cover all legal expenses and any settlements or penalties that they face as a result of the disclosure.

The key point is that we want the information available as soon as possible. We can worry about the proper level of compensation later. This again gets back to whether we see the pandemic as a real emergency.

Suppose that during World War II Lockheed, General Electric, or some other military contractor developed a new sonar system that made it easier to detect the presence of German submarines. What would we do if this company refused to share the technology with the U.S. government so that it was better able to defend its military and merchant vessels against German attacks?

While that scenario would have been almost unimaginable – no U.S. corporation would have withheld valuable military technology from the government during the war – it is also almost inconceivable that the government would have just shrugged and said, "Oh well, I guess there is nothing we can do." (That's especially hard to imagine since so much public money went into developing the technology.) The point is that the war was seen as a national emergency and the belief that we had to do everything possible to win as quickly as possible was widely shared. If we see the pandemic as a similar emergency, it would be reasonable to treat it in the same way as World War II.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this story is what the industry representative saw as the downside of making their technology widely available. The argument was that the mRNA technology was not actually developed to be used against Covid. Its value against the pandemic was just a fortunate coincidence. The technology was actually intended to be used for vaccines against cancer and other diseases.

From the industry perspective, the downside is that if they made their technology more widely available, then other companies may be able to step in and use it to develop their own vaccines against cancer and other diseases. In other words, the big fear is that we will see more advances in health care if the technology is widely available, pretty much the exact opposite of the story about how this would impede further innovation.

I gather most of us do not share the industry's concerns that open-sourcing technology could lead to a proliferation of new vaccines against deadly diseases, but it is worth taking a moment to think about the innovation process. The industry has long pushed the line that the way to promote more innovation is to make patent and related monopolies longer and stronger. The idea is that by increasing potential profits, we will see more investment in developing new vaccines, cures, and treatments.

But these monopolies are only one way to provide incentives, and even now they are not the only mechanism we use. We also spend over $40 billion a year in the United States alone on supporting biomedical research, primarily through the National Institutes of Health. Most of this money goes to more basic research, but many drugs and vaccines have been developed largely on the government dime, most notably the Moderna vaccine, which was paid for entirely through Operation Warp Speed.

If we put up more public money, then we need less private money. I have argued that we would be best off relying pretty much entirely on public money. This would take away the perverse incentives created by patent monopoly pricing, like the pushing of opioids that was a major factor in the country's opioid crisis. It would also allow for the open-sourcing of research, which should be a condition of public funding. This could create the world the industry fears, as many companies could jump ahead and take advantage of developments in mRNA technology to develop vaccines against a variety of diseases.

But even if we don't go the full public funding route, it is pretty much definitional that more public funding reduces the need for strong patent monopolies to provide incentives. If we put up more dollars for research, clinical testing, or other aspects of the development process, then we can provide the same incentive to the pharmaceutical industry with shorter and/or weaker monopoly protections.

In the vaccine context, open-source means not only sharing existing technology, but creating the opportunity for improving it by allowing engineers all of the world to inspect production techniques. While the industry would like to pretend that it has perfected the production process and possibilities for improvement do not exist, this is hardly plausible based on what is publicly known.

To take a few examples, Pfizer announced back in February that it found that changing its production techniques could cut production time in half. It also discovered that its vaccine did not require super-cold storage. Rather, it could be kept in a normal freezer for up to two weeks. In fact, Pfizer did not even realize that its standard vial contained six doses of the vaccine rather than five. This meant that one sixth of its vaccines were being thrown into the toilet at a time when they were in very short supply.

Given this history, it is hard to believe that Pfizer and the other pharmaceutical companies now have an optimal production system that will allow for no further improvements. As the saying goes, when did the drug companies stop making mistakes about their production technology?

Has Anyone Heard Of China?

It is remarkable how discussions of vaccinating the world so often leave out the Chinese vaccines. They are clearly not as effective as the mRNA vaccines, but they are nonetheless hugely more effective in preventing death and serious illness than no vaccines. And, in a context where our drug companies insist that they couldn't possibly produce enough vaccines to cover the developing world this year, and possibly not even next year, we should be looking to the Chinese vaccines to fill the gap.

China was able to distribute more than 560 million vaccines internally in the month of June, in addition to the doses it supplied to other countries. Unless the country had a truly massive stockpile at the start of the month, this presumably reflects capacity in the range of 500 million vaccines a month. The Chinese vaccines account for close to 50 percent of the doses given around the world to date.

It would be bizarre not to try to take advantage of China's capacity. There obviously are political issues in dealing with China, but America and other Western countries should try to put these aside, if we are going to be serious about vaccinating the world as quickly as possible.

'Mistakes Were Made' — NOT Our National Motto

If a vaccine-resistant strain of the coronavirus develops, and we have to go through a whole new round of disease, deaths, and shutdowns, it will be an enormous disaster from any perspective. The worst part of the story is that it is a fully avoidable disaster.

We could have had the whole world vaccinated by now, if the United States and other major powers had made it a priority. Unfortunately, we were too concerned about pharmaceutical industry profits and scoring points against China to go this route.

Nonetheless, we may get lucky. Current infection rates worldwide are down sharply from the peaks hit in April, but they are rising again due to the Delta variant. It is essential to do everything possible to accelerate the distribution of vaccines. It is long past time that we started taking the pandemic seriously.