Scientists, community members, and activists rally outside of Moderna’s headquarters as part of a global action day for fair access to vaccines in Cambridge, Mass., on March 11, 2021.
Photo: Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
The extremity of Covid-19 vaccine apartheid cannot be overstated. As of mid-February, the United States had acquired enough vaccines for three times its total population, while in 130 countries, not a single vaccine shot had been administered. This is no accident, but the direct and long-predicted result of a vaccine production and access model tied to privatized intellectual property and entrenched medicine monopolies.
The majority of Americans want President Joe Biden to act to end this intolerable vaccine inequality. Sixty percent of U.S. voters said they wanted Biden to endorse a motion at the World Trade Organization that would waive patent barriers and other crucial intellectual property protections on Covid-19 vaccines, according to a new poll from Data for Progress and the Progressive International. This would enable a significant expansion of global production and rollout, while disrupting the extraordinary profiteering of pharmaceutical leviathans in a death-dealing pandemic.
The refusal on the part of major pharmaceutical companies and Western powers to ensure the sharing of vaccine patent and production information has been an immeasurable moral failure, not to mention a most foolish approach to a pandemic in need of a global response. The new poll also makes clear that, for Biden, blocking vaccine sharing is not even a popular position. Seventy-two percent of registered Democrats want the president to remove patent barriers to speed vaccine rollout and reduce costs for less affluent nations.
At present, WTO rules over intellectual property mean that most countries are barred from producing the leading vaccines that have been approved, including those by Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson, which are U.S.-produced. Last October, South Africa and India brought a proposal to the WTO for a temporary waiver that would apply to certain intellectual property on Covid-19 medical tools and technologies until global herd immunity is reached.
It garnered majority support from member states: A hundred countries support the proposal overall, and 58 governments now co-sponsor it; 375 civil society organizations, including Doctors Without Borders, Oxfam, and Amnesty International have signed a letter in support.
The waiver was blocked, however, by a small number of wealthy nations and blocs, including the U.S., the U.K., and the EU, that chose instead to leave vaccine production in the hands of only a few pharmaceutical companies, which, through public-private partnerships, have ensured priority access to the rich countries in turn.
There are no legitimate grounds for maintaining patent barriers in this health crisis unless you’re a pharmaceutical giant making billions or, of course, a Western power invested in maintaining global power through neoliberalization, market monopolies, and racialized capitalism. The strongest advocates of intellectual property protections in medicine, Bill Gates chief among them, have offered no ethical basis for the current status quo beyond vague gestures to protecting “innovation.”
Even a self-interested approach, that sees the devastating economic possibilities of a mutating virus turning the pandemic into something endemic, should make the necessity of a patent waiver clear. The commitment to monopoly medicine is, in this sense, ideological.
The WTO waiver proposal needs backing by a consensus of the the organization’s 164 members to pass. It was under President Donald Trump that the U.S. blocked the patent waiver: a move that came as no surprise for an administration of white nationalists, which proudly left the World Health Organization. A change of tack by the Biden administration, which rejoined the WHO on Day One, could go a long way in pushing other wealthy countries to follow suit.
The Data for Progress and the Progressive International poll makes clear that Biden has a popular mandate in acting against vaccine apartheid. Burcu Kilic, research director of the access to medicines program at Public Citizen and member of Progressive International’s Council, called on Biden to “listen to Americans who put him in power” and “do the right thing.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chair of the Senate Budget Committee, responded to the poll saying the U.S. should be “leading the global effort to end the coronavirus pandemic.” According to Sanders, “a temporary WTO waiver, which would enable the transfer of vaccine technologies to poorer countries, is a good way to do that.” More than 60 lawmakers have added their signature to a letter pushing Biden to save lives through a global vaccination drive.
For an entire year, public health organizations and civil society groups have en masse urged an internationalized pandemic response of open-sourced research and medical tools. Such calls for cooperation and equity were swiftly quashed, in no small part thanks to the work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. As Alexander Zaitchik noted in a crucial piece for The New Republic, Gates’s long history of intellectual property crusading enacted a Covid-19 vaccine response in line with a status quo “defined by a zero-sum vaccination battle that has left much of the world on the losing side.”
I’m not the first to highlight the colonialist regime that has shaped this unequal vaccine scenario. Sharon Lerner reported for The Intercept that countries including Argentina, South Africa, Brazil, and Turkey, which hosted Pfizer vaccine trials, have been shut out of sufficient vaccine access. The same extractive practices that have historically enriched Western powers through the direct expense and suffering of colonized peoples continue to this day with most deadly consequences — vaccine apartheid among them.
Whether Biden, no enemy to neoliberalism, will take a stand against the approach of canonized philanthropist Gates is not yet clear. It’s now undeniable that U.S. voters, alongside the broad public health community, want him to.