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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Tag: vaccine patents

Suspend Those Vaccine Patents Now

Images of the uncontrolled pandemic in India or Brazil may seem too distant to worry us in America, separated as we are by thousands of miles and decades of development. But any such complacency is badly misplaced. Raging contagion poses an existential threat to us, whether abroad or at home, and can only be stanched by an emergency mobilization of massive inoculation.

That global effort is only likely to succeed in time if Western countries remove the patent protections that now stand in the way of rapid and decentralized production of COVID-19 vaccines. Any nation that can make its own — with appropriate safeguards and quality assurance — must be given the formulas and technology to do so now. Delay means allowing the virus to spread and mutate at an unlimited rate, which would only result in disaster. It would render useless the vaccines, which represent the single meaningful achievement of former President Trump's administration.

After months of dithering over this question, despite an earlier promise by President Biden, the White House now supports lifting U.S. patents on the vaccines. That encouraging announcement came within hours of the publication of a pathbreaking article in The Atlantic magazine by Chelsea Clinton and Achal Prabhala. The daughter of former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is a public health expert as well as vice chair of the Clinton Foundation. Her co-author is a respected voice on access to medicines in the developing world.

As Clinton and Prabhala explain, the United States can back a pending proposal before the World Trade Organization to temporarily suspend intellectual property rights on the pandemic vaccines. "The proposal has been languishing at the WTO since October, despite overwhelming support from developing countries," they write, "because of opposition from the U.S., as well as from Canada, Australia, the European Union and the United Kingdom." With the Biden administration switching sides, pressure on the other recalcitrant states will be too strong to resist.

But that won't be enough. Clinton and Prabhala also urge Biden to require both Moderna and Johnson & Johnson to disclose how they make the vaccines that were invented with billions invested by U.S. taxpayers. In fact, the principal technology that underlies the production of nearly all the COVID-19 vaccines is based on a discovery made with government funding that will shortly be patented — by the U.S. government.

Despite the critical public role in producing most of the vaccines now being used, the Trump administration negotiated contracts with the pharma companies that omitted any obligation to share those products or license them to other countries. Instead, following the blind stupidity of their "America First" mantra, Trump officials insisted that no such requirements be imposed.

Those foolish decisions can be overruled by Trump's successor, however, who now seems inclined to do so. Clinton and Prabhala point to the Defense Production Act, which provides broad presidential power to assist foreign nations during a worldwide health crisis. Biden could also threaten to sue most of the vaccine manufacturers for patent infringement, and he possesses many other levers to obtain their compliance.

The usual reluctance to sympathize with Big Pharma might be diminished somewhat by their remarkably swift creation of the lifesaving vaccines, heavily subsidized though they were. Their spokespersons have come up with a long list of excuses for maintaining the patent protections that most countries seek to suspend. For instance, they claim that even if patents are suspended, few countries have the capacity to safely manufacture the new vaccines at scale.

But quality manufacturing processes for those medicines have been greatly simplified and decentralized — and while Western countries delay, China and Russia have been licensing production of their own versions for the sake of "vaccine diplomacy." There is no reason why the United States and Europe, whose vaccines are superior, should lose that contest. The Western pharma companies have already earned tens of billions of dollars from vaccine sales and stand to make much more. Saving the planet from a coronavirus conflagration is in their interest too.

The world watched a similar process unfold two decades ago, when the industrialized countries finally reversed their genocidal policy of withholding HIV/AIDS medications from the poor because they were "too costly." The pharmaceutical companies opposed that humanitarian change, at the risk of a hundred million lives. Their greed was eventually overruled — by Bill Clinton and the late Nelson Mandela, among others — and that is exactly what should happen now.

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.

Those foolish decisions can be overruled by Trump's successor, however, who now seems inclined to do so. Clinton and Prabhala point to the Defense Production Act, which provides broad presidential power to assist foreign nations during a worldwide health crisis. Biden could also threaten to sue most of the vaccine manufacturers for patent infringement, and he possesses many other levers to obtain their compliance.

The usual reluctance to sympathize with Big Pharma might be diminished somewhat by their remarkably swift creation of the lifesaving vaccines, heavily subsidized though they were. Their spokespersons have come up with a long list of excuses for maintaining the patent protections that most countries seek to suspend. For instance, they claim that even if patents are suspended, few countries have the capacity to safely manufacture the new vaccines at scale.

But quality manufacturing processes for those medicines have been greatly simplified and decentralized — and while Western countries delay, China and Russia have been licensing production of their own versions for the sake of "vaccine diplomacy." There is no reason why the United States and Europe, whose vaccines are superior, should lose that contest. The Western pharma companies have already earned tens of billions of dollars from vaccine sales and stand to make much more. Saving the planet from a coronavirus conflagration is in their interest too.

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The world watched a similar process unfold two decades ago, when the industrialized countries finally reversed their genocidal policy of withholding HIV/AIDS medications from the poor because they were "too costly." The pharmaceutical companies opposed that humanitarian change, at the risk of a hundred million lives. Their greed was overruled — by Bill Clinton and the late Nelson Mandela, among others — and that is exactly what should happen now.

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.

How To Survive A Global Pandemic

Well before Joe Biden marked the end of his first hundred days as president, his administration doubled the goal of 100 million vaccinations he set at the beginning. His government's performance suggests that we can eventually temper the hesitancy among certain populations — notably white males who watch too much Fox News — on our way to herd immunity.

After the United States manages to inoculate the great majority of those who live here, however, we will still have to face a greater threat — and a lesson about life on this planet that we ought to have learned decades ago.

The rich nations, including ours, must vaccinate the poor nations, all of them, or we will never escape the shadow of the pandemic. This is an obvious moral imperative, since billions of lives are at stake. But if that doesn't work for you, try this: Every unvaccinated human being on Earth is a potential breeder of virus mutations that could evade current vaccines and decimate our population.

That's the merciless science of viruses — and yet, to date, we and our allies have done far too little to ensure that the miraculous vaccines will find every arm that requires one.

Biden seemed to acknowledge the necessity of a global vaccination campaign within weeks of taking office, when he promised to deliver $4 billion for Covax, a multilateral effort promoted by the World Health Organization to finance vaccination in poorer countries. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is trying to raise another $2 billion.

Unfortunately, those well-meaning pledges won't mean much in the developing world now, as a recent report from scientists at Duke University points out, because wealthy nations have cornered the vaccine market. With a population of just over a billion, those nations have acquired nearly 5 billion doses, locking up production capacity for months ahead.

By July 4, when the president hopes we can all enjoy barbecues with friends and family, the United States will have over 300 million extra doses on ice — enough to immunize the entire populations of many smaller countries that have almost none. Neither the United States nor its allies have announced any plan to donate the hundreds of millions of extra vaccines to the needier nations. Which means that another two years or more may pass before people in those countries can be vaccinated; many, many innocent people will die; and the danger of vaccine-proof mutant viruses will grow exponentially.

The intractable inequities are made worse by bad policies that have somehow survived the pandemic, including the insistence on protecting vaccine patents by the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union. Those powerful states stymied a petition to the World Trade Organization from nearly a hundred developing countries to set aside patent protections on vaccines during the pandemic. They asked for a temporary waiver, but in fact, it should be permanent.

And that is only the first step in recognition of our global mutuality. Despite the xenophobic barking that got so loud during the era of former President Trump, the truth is that none of us will be safe until all of us are safe — and that will remain true for our children and their children. The strutting nationalists who denounce "globalism" have no viable answers to the problems we confront, from pandemics to climate change; instead, they pretend those crises aren't real.

Such denialism remains the "nationalist" attitude toward the pandemic even now. After burying more than 570,000 of our fellow Americans, we know how that blind approach has worked out. Hostility, ignorance and selfishness equal death.

Whether we like it or not, we live on a globalizing world with billions of other people, and at the moment, we have nowhere else to go. After all this misery, we must grow up and act as if we understand that most basic fact — lifting up humanity together, the only way we will save ourselves.

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