Why Biden’s IP vaccine waiver is political theater


Photo source: Ninian Reid – CC BY 2.0

The Indian Ministry of External Affairs has welcomed the US government’s May 5 statement announcing its support for relaxing the standards of the TRIPS Agreement, to ensure rapid and affordable access to vaccines and medicines for developing countries. development. Delhi is “hopeful that with a consensus-based approach, the waiver can be approved quickly at the WTO.” But is the optimism justified?

The United States’ statement itself is worded with caution and without commitment. It just says, “We will actively participate in the text-based negotiations at the World Trade Organization (WTO) necessary to make this happen.” These negotiations will take time given the consensual nature of the institution and the complexity of the issues at stake. ”

The Biden administration continues to focus on “our vaccine supply to the American people.” It’s an America First strategy. President Biden plans to vaccinate at least partially 70% of adults by July 4 so that herd immunity develops, which will help the level of new infections to drop.

Biden’s decision on the TRIPS waiver can only be seen as a political decision. According to a Reuters report citing knowledgeable sources, “Wednesday’s decision allows Washington to respond to demands from the (US) left and developing countries, while using WTO negotiations to narrow the scope of the derogation. Since negotiations will take time, the decision also allows for an increase in vaccine supply through more conventional means. “

Indeed, the Biden administration is juggling several balls in the air. On the one hand, the progressive left in US politics, including Senator Bernie Sanders and Democratic Party Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, demanded a TRIPS waiver for Covid vaccines; similarly, developing countries, supported by the WHO and the UN, also request the waiver; India, a key Indo-Pacific ally of the United States, initiated the proposed TRIPS waiver in December; and, in principle, the Biden administration is committed to “multilateralism”.

On the other hand, Biden, whose half-century political life has been largely spent in the United States Congress, is well aware of the impressive weight of pharmaceutical companies in American politics. From the point of view of this lobby, the patent exemption “amounts to the expropriation of the property of pharmaceutical companies whose innovation and financial investments made possible the development of Covid-19 vaccines in the first place”, as principal researcher at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security puts it.

The U.S. pharmaceutical industry and Congressional Republicans have already pitched Biden’s announcement, saying it undermines incentives for U.S. innovation. Further, the argument is that, even with the patent waiver, vaccine manufacturing is a complex process and is not the same as flipping a switch.

Senator Richard Burr, the senior Republican on the US Senate Health Committee, denounced Biden’s decision: “Intellectual property protections are part of the reason we have these life-saving products; removing these protections only guarantees that we will not have the vaccines or treatments we need in the next pandemic. Republican senators backed by Republican Study Committee chairman Jim Banks are proposing to introduce legislation to block the movement.

Clearly, Biden would rather spend his political capital getting the necessary legislation through Congress to advance his internal reform agenda rather than spending time and energy tackling the pharmaceutical industry to improve. his image as a Good Samaritan on the world stage.

In theory, Biden could count on “text-based negotiations” at the WTO that dragged on for months, if not years, without reaching anywhere. U.S. support for the waiver might even be a tactic to convince drug companies to back less drastic measures like sharing technology and expanding joint ventures to quickly boost global production. So far, Covid-19 vaccines have been distributed mainly to the rich countries that developed them, while the pandemic is sweeping the poorest, like India, and the real goal is, after all, to expand the distribution. vaccines.

Biden is well aware that there will also be huge opposition to the TRIPS waiver from European allies of the United States. The British press reported that the United Kingdom had engaged in closed-door talks at the World Trade Organization in recent months with figures such as Australia, Canada, Japan, Norway, Singapore, the European Union. and the United States, which all opposed the idea. .

While the MEA claims that “the proposal has received the support of more than 120 countries”, Western reports put forward a conservative figure of 80 countries. The WTO has 164 members and all countries must come to an agreement before a waiver is approved. It seems far away. Oddly enough, Germany has already made efforts to forcefully reject Biden’s proposal.

It’s a race against time, as it’s possible that a super spreader variant with a very potent immune evasion may well appear in the near future. According to Josh Schiffer, infectious disease expert at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, “It’s virtually impossible to predict what’s going to happen next. I think the likelihood of us having a variant emerging that is worse than the ones we are currently facing is much higher if you have a higher number of infections circulating, like what is happening in Latin America or India. “

Suffice it to say that rapid vaccination is of critical importance. Even with partial protection, India can achieve higher degrees of herd immunity. Partial herd immunity is already lowering the level of new infections in the United States despite the highly infectious prevalence of B.1.1.7. Great Britain’s experience was also the same. Experts believe that without partial herd immunity, many parts of the US and UK would likely look like India right now with the new variants.

Stephane Bancel, CEO of Moderna, has warned that other variants of Covid-19 will emerge in the coming months. Suffice it to say that India simply needs to step up its COVID-19 vaccination rates. If the TRIPS waiver materializes, that is fine. But like the bums in Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, we can’t engage in a variety of discussions and encounters and wait for the TRIPS waiver that may never happen.

According to reports, the government plans to dramatically increase Bharat Biotech’s production of Covaxin, which has reportedly shown 81% efficacy according to the results of the interim Phase III analysis. Bharat Biotech aims to manufacture 700 million doses at its four facilities by the end of the year. Another option will be to go for the large-scale production of the Russian vaccine Sputnik V which has an effectiveness of over 91% (according to the results published in The Lancet.)

The Russian Direct Investment Fund, which markets the vaccine, has signed deals to produce more than 750 million doses of Sputnik V in India with six domestic vaccine makers, according to reports. Public sector companies can also be mobilized to increase the production capacity of the Sputnik V vaccine.

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