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 overruled -- by Bill Clinton and the late Nelson Mandela, among others -- and that is exactly what should happen now.
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