Donald Trump launched a new vaccine war this month, but not against the virus. It was against the world.
TheUnited States and the UKwere the onlytwo holdoutsin the World Health Assembly from the declaration that vaccines and medicines forCovid-19 should be available as public goods, and not under exclusive patent rights. TheUnited States explicitly dissociated itself from the call for a patent pool, talking instead of the critical role that intellectual property plays in other words, patents for vaccines and medicines.
Having badly botched his Covid-19 response, President Trump is trying to redeem his fortunes for the November elections by promising an early vaccine. The 2020 version of Trumps Make America Great Again slogan is shaping up to be, in essence, vaccinesfor us but the rest of the world will have to queue up and pay what Big Pharma asks, as it will hold the patents.
In contrast, all other countries agreed with theCosta Rican proposal in the World Health Assemblythat there should be a patent pool for all Covid-19 vaccines and medicines. President Xi Jinping saidChinese vaccines would be available as a public good, a view shared by European Union leaders. Among the10 candidate vaccines in Phase 1 and 2of clinical trials, the Chinese have five, the United States has three, and the UK and Germany have one each.
Trump has given anultimatum to the World Health Organization (WHO)with a permanent withdrawal of funds if it does not mend its ways in 30 days. In sharp contrast, in the World Health Assembly (the highest decision-making body of the WHO), almost all countries, including close allies of the United States, rallied behind the WHO.
Thefailure of the US Centers for Disease Control and Preventionagainst Covid-19, with nearly four times the annual budget of the WHO, is visible to the world. The CDC failed toprovide a successful testfor SARS-CoV-2 in thecritical months of February and March, while ignoring the WHOssuccessful test kitsthat were distributed to 120 countries.
Trump has yet to hold his administration and the CDC responsible for this criminal bungling. This,more than any other failure, is the reason that Covid-19 infections in the US now number more than 1.5 million, about a third of the global total. Contrast this with China, the first to face an unknown epidemic, stopping it at 82,000 infections, and the amazing results that countriessuch as VietnamandSouth Koreahave produced.
One issue is now looming large over the Covid-19 pandemic. If we do not address the issue of intellectual-property rights, we are likely to see arepeat of the AIDS tragedy.
People died for 10 years (1994-2004)as patented AIDS medicine was priced at US$10,000 to $15,000 for a years supply, far beyond their reach. Finally,patent laws in India allowed people to get AIDS medicineat less than a dollar a day, or $350 for a years supply. Today, 80% of the worlds AIDS medicinecomes from India.
For Big Pharma, profits trumped lives, and they will continue to do so, Covid or no Covid, unless we change the world.
Most countries have compulsory licensing provisions that allow them to break patents in case of epidemics or health emergencies. Even the World Trade Organization (WTO), after a bitter fight, accepted in its Doha Declaration (2001) that in a health emergency, countries have the right to allow any company to manufacture a patented drug without the patent holders permission, and even import it from other countries.
Why is it, then, that countries are unable to break patents, even if there are provisions in their laws and in the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement? The answer is their fear of US sanctions against them.
Every year, the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) issues a Special 301 Report that it has used to threaten trade sanctions against any country that tries to compulsorily license any patented product.
India figures prominentlyin this report year after year, for daring toissue a compulsory licensein 2012 to Natco, an Indian pharmaceutical company, for nexavar, a cancer drug Bayer was selling formore than $65,000 for a year of treatment. Marijn Dekkers, the chief executive of Bayer, was quoted widely that this wastheft, and We did not develop this medicine for Indians. We developed it for Western patients who can afford it.
This leaves unanswered how many people even in the affluent West can afford a $65,000 bill for an illness. But there is no question that a bill of this magnitude is a death sentence for anybody but the super-rich in countries like India. Though a number of other drugs were also under consideration for compulsory licensing at that time, India has not exercised this provision again after receiving US threats.
It is the fear that countries can break patents using their compulsory-licensing powers that led to proposals for patent pooling. The argument was that since many of these diseases do not affect rich countries, Big Pharma should either let go of their patents to such pools, or philanthropic capital should fund the development of new drugs for this pool.
Facing the Covid-19 pandemic, it is this idea of patent pooling that emerged in the recentWorld Health Assembly, WHA-73. All countries supported this proposal, barring theUnited States and its loyal camp follower, the UK.
TheUnited States also entered its disagreementon the final WHA resolution, being thelone objectorto patent pooling of Covid-19 medicines and vaccines, noting the critical role that intellectual property plays in incentivizing the development of new and improved health products.
While patent pooling is welcome if no other measure is available, it also makes it appear as if countries have no other recourse apart from the charity of big capital. What this hides, as charity always does, is that people and countries have legitimate rights even under TRIPS to break patents under conditions of an epidemic or other health emergency.
The United States, which screams murder if a compulsory license is issued by any country, has no such compunction when its own interests are threatened. During the anthrax scare in 2001, the US secretary of healthissued a threat to Bayerunder eminent domain for patents for licensing the anthrax-treatment drug ciprofloxacin to other manufacturers.
Bayer folded, and agreed to supply the quantity needed at a price that the US government had set. And without a whimper. Yes, this was the same Bayer that considers India a thief for issuing a compulsory license.
The vaccination for Covid-19 might need to be repeated each year, as we still do not know the duration of its protection. It is unlikely that a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 willprovide a lifetime immunitylike the smallpox vaccine.
Unlike AIDS, where the patient numbers were smaller and were stigmatized in different ways, Covid-19 is a visible threat for everyone. Any attempt to hold people and governments to ransom on Covid-19 vaccines or medicines could see the collapse of the entire patent edifice of TRIPS that Big Pharma, backed by the United States and major EU countries, have built.
That is why the more clever in the capitalist world have moved toward a voluntary patent pool for potential Covid-19medicines and vaccines. This means that companies or institutions holding patents on medicines, such as remdesivir, or vaccines would voluntarily hand them over to such a pool.
The terms and conditions of such a handover, meaning at concessional rates, or for only for certain regions, are still not clear, leading to criticism that a voluntary patent pool is not a substitute for declaring that all such medicines and vaccines should be designated as global public goods during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Unlike clever capital, Trumps response to the Covid-19 vaccine is to bully his way through. He believes that with the unlimited money that the United States is now willing to put into the vaccine efforts, it will either beat everybody else to the winning post, orbuy the companythat issuccessful. If this strategy succeeds, he can then use his Covid-19 vaccine as a new instrument of global power. It is the United States that will then decide which countries get the vaccine (and for how much), and which ones dont.
Trump does not believe in arule-based global order, even if the rules arebiased in favorof the rich. He is walking out of variousarms-control agreementsand hascrippled the WTO. He believes that the United States, as the biggest economy and themost powerful military power, should have the untrammeled right to dictate to all countries. Threats ofbombing and invasionscan be combined withillegal unilateral sanctions and the latest weapon in his imaginary arsenal is withholding vaccines.
Trumps little problem is that the days of the United States being a sole global hegemon passed decades ago. The United States has shown itself to be afumbling giantand its epidemicresponse shambolic. It has been unable to provide virus tests to its people in time, and failed to stop the epidemic through containment/mitigation measures, which a number of other countries have done.
Chinaand theEUhave already agreed that any vaccine developed by them will be regarded as a public good. Even without that, once a medicine or a vaccine is known to be successful, any country with a reasonable scientific infrastructure can replicate the medicine or the vaccine, and manufacture it locally.
India in particular has one of thelargest generic drug and vaccinemanufacturing capacities in the world. What prevents India, or any country for that matter, from manufacturing Covid-19 vaccines or drugs once they are developed only the empty threat of a failed hegemon on breaking patents?
This article was produced in partnership byNewsclickandGlobetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute, which provided it to Asia Times.
Prabir Purkayasthais the founding editor ofNewsclick.in, a digital media platform. He is an activist for science and the Free Software movement.
Asia Times Financialis now live. Linking accurate news, insightful analysis and local knowledge with the ATF China Bond 50 Index, the world'sfirst benchmark cross sector Chinese Bond Indices.Read ATFnow.
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