Debunking Pharma’s Talking Points on the TRIPS Waiver

Opponents of the WTO TRIPS waiver proposal, especially Big Pharma, are trotting out a stale set of talking points to oppose the waiver, each of which is easily rebutted:    

  • IP is not a barrier:  If this were true, why does industry simultaneously argue that IP is essential to its economic viability and that it would not have invested in product development and partnerships in the absence of patent and trade secret rights? If that were true, why are companies suing each other over COVID-19 patents? If this were true, why are potential competitors not already racing to make copycat versions?
  • All existing manufacturing capacity is being used:  Big Pharma has been arguing for months that all available manufacturing capacity is being utilized, but then they still find additional contract manufacturing partners, both within the Big Pharma cartel and from a world-wide network of companies, week after week. And we hear of companies in Canada and Denmark and Israel and India and Senegal and elsewhere that have underutilized capacity that have not been able to get bilateral licenses from vaccine manufacturers. The truth is that industry wants tightly controlled co-production and contract manufacturing agreements with a subset of companies – in the case of Moderna and Pfizer, only enough to satisfy their hugely profitable and preferential sales in rich countries.
  • Transferring technology is not worth the effort:  Even though vaccine manufacturing technologies are certainly more complex than small molecule technologies, how hard can they really be? Pfizer and Moderna went from zero capacity to manufacture mRNA vaccines at scale to highly efficient production in a matter of months.  Moreover, they and other vaccine originators have entered into hundreds of technology access agreements with key suppliers, active ingredient producers, formulators, and fill-and-finishers. I guess tech transfer is not that hard when you expect super-profits to come into your pocket and when you have immense public subsidy either for research and development or guaranteed purchase or both, but it then becomes impossible when it goes to producers who will sell to customers you refuse to sell to.
  • Transferring technology will divert us from producing planned quantities:  So, expanding capacity to meet unmet need is a distraction? Companies are already so “distracted” by profits that they are neglecting to make equitable quantities affordable and accessible in low- and middle-income countries. A little distraction could go a long way to allow other producers to meet unmet demand for life-saving medicines and vaccines.
  • COVAX and other donation programs are enough: Charities such as COVAX, no matter how well intentioned, are fig leaves covering the core driver of vaccine apartheid: monopolies that artificially restrict supply. COVAX, unsurprisingly, has already overpromised and underdelivered vaccine doses, and is struggling to secure enough supply from existing manufacturers, pointing to an urgent need to expand global manufacturing capacity. Without expanded manufacturing, COVAX will continue to fail.        
  • Creating more supply capacity will disrupt supply chains and interfere with our production:  Even though companies aren’t supplying poor people in developing countries, they are certain they should stand in the front of the line to get access to components so that they can sell preferentially at higher prices to rich country clients. This claim is equivalent to: “Stay out of our way, we want to make more money…y’all can wait.” Of course, an alternative solution is to expand component manufacturing and detangle supply chains.
  • Using capacity in developing countries is unsafe:  Here we get the racist “quality slander” that industry and its mouthpieces have used many times in the past, one that reminds us of Andrew Natsios’ infamous statement that “Africans don’t have watches and can’t tell time” and therefore could not benefit from HIV treatment. Contrary to this racist, colonialist slur, many of the contract manufacturers now used by Big Pharma companies are from the countries slandered. India is the biggest vaccine manufacturer in the world with dozens of facilities that meet global quality standards. Some companies may need capacity enhancements and stronger quality control safeguards, but those are investments that are well worth it—now and for the future.
  • Allowing additional producers will encourage counterfeiters:  Originator companies selling cheap-to-produce vaccines at high prices give counterfeiters more than enough incentive to make fake products. Why exactly would entry of new producers that will sell preferentially at lower prices to developing countries create additional incentives to counterfeiters?
  • Vaccine originators can make enough for the world:  We hear wildly optimistic estimates of production capacity – 8 billion, 10 billion, 12 billion, even 14 billion in 2021. These same companies produced only 4% of their projected output in 2020 and had only produced a little more than a billion doses by the end of April. We have heard about production problems and delays by AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, and even Moderna. Moreover, originators are increasingly turning their attention to booster shots, pediatric shots, and new variant shots for rich countries further threatening supplies to developing countries.
  •  IP monopolies are essential because they create financial  incentives we need to respond to future pandemics: Companies demanded to have their R&D de-risked through government investments in R&D, product development, clinical trials, early manufacturing capacity, and guaranteed sales through advance purchase agreements. They are already making tons of money:  Moderna’s revised estimates, even before new variant vaccines, is $19.4 billion in 2021 and Pfizer’s $26 billion plus an additional $15.1 billion to its partner BioNTech. And rich countries are going to continue to buy from originators. How much is enough?  Moreover, should we let companies get away with this blackmail threat? If this biopharmaceutical system won’t produce enough medicines and vaccines to meet global needs and wants billions in profits just to meet rich countries’ demand while blocking other producers who will make sales that originators won’t make, then this system is corrupt at its core and maybe we need to overturn it entirely.