In October 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic had already caused one million deaths. There were highly effective vaccines on the horizon but every sign pointed to the intention of pharmaceutical companies to obstruct equitable global access, with high-income countries aiding and abetting their cartel-like behavior.
That’s why South Africa and India petitioned the World Trade Organization (WTO) with a proposal to allow member states to waive intellectual property (IP) rights on COVID-19-related drugs, vaccines, tests, personal protective equipment, and other medical technologies. Their IP waiver would remove the threat of legal action against countries pursuing expanded manufacturing of medical technologies needed to save lives.
The Biden administration later announced under activist pressure that it supported a limited TRIPS waiver for COVID-19 vaccines. But the administration has simply sat on the fence in response to an impasse at the WTO—a cynical move that is the same as obstruction, even while delta variant-COVID-19 infections have ramped up the pace of preventable suffering and death around the world. The U.S. continues to hoard millions of doses and lock up future supply in advance purchase agreements, acts of nationalism that cannot be balanced by donating a few million doses to other countries when at least 11 billion doses will be needed to reach all people. As a candidate, President Biden promised vaccine patents would not stand in the way of global access. Now that he has the power to make that a reality, his administration is ceding power to pharma rather than taking bold action and ending the pandemic.
More than three million people have died of COVID-19 during the time WTO members have spent blocking the proposal rather than acting to save lives. Meanwhile, wealthy countries and pharmaceutical companies have intensified vaccine apartheid—low-income countries have received only 0.4% of shots so far.
Australia, Canada, and the UK have been siphoning doses from COVAX while Johnson & Johnson spent months exporting doses made in Africa to wealthy countries. The wealthiest countries have kicked off in earnest efforts to give third shots to their people, signing purchase agreements for hundreds of millions of more doses in 2022 and locking up supply desperately needed in countries where few people have had a single dose—a move Dr. Michael Ryan, the World Health Organization’s Health Emergencies chief, likened to handing out extra life jackets to people who already have them while “leaving other people to drown without a single life jacket.”
This is a pattern of greed and nationalism that has played out over and over. Health GAP was founded to fight for universal access to antiretroviral medicines at a time when people in the United States were realizing the life-saving benefits of HIV treatment but virtually no one in the global South had access. AIDS activists rejected pharma-created scarcity and exorbitant prices that locked people out of treatment. Working in North-South coalitions, activists exploded the prevailing belief that global access to HIV treatment was impossible and drove down the price of treatment, in some cases by 99%.
That’s why Health GAP has been calling out pharma greed since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, from confronting Gilead’s cynical play for orphan drug designation for remdesivir and demanding U.S. officials use their power to ensure other countries have access to COVID-19 health products in needed quantities at affordable prices. We’ve joined our allies in protests from New York, to Washington, D.C., Boston, and beyond.
This campaigning is inextricably linked to our efforts to defeat the global AIDS crisis, and AIDS activism is strengthened by simultaneous global campaigning against COVID-19 inequities. The current system of medical R&D means pharma companies are incentivized to protect their monopolies and to grow their profits no matter the dire consequences. When pharma has the power to control supply, pricing, and distribution, it will continue to prioritize rich countries for maximum profit while obstructing competition from additional manufacturers in the global South. The system is made to encourage limited supply, sky-high prices, and never-ending pandemics. By working to block the TRIPS waiver and colluding with politicians and policymakers to prioritize wholly inadequate, neo-colonial voluntary measures like donation programs, pharma companies are cornering a market they don’t intend to serve anytime soon.
Deeds, not words, save lives during colliding pandemics. The Biden administration must fund and implement a plan to vaccinate the world—nothing short of widespread worldwide vaccination will end the pandemic. This will require a major expansion of mRNA vaccine manufacturing and technology transfer from Big Pharma companies that currently hold intellectual property rights to producers in Africa, Latin America, Asia, and the Caribbean so the world can recover from this pandemic and be ready to respond to the next one.