On October 2 – seven months ago and there are over 2,000,000 deaths linked to Covid-19 – the governments of India and South Africa have asked the World Trade Organization to issue a temporary waiver of the Travel Agreement and to ensure the “unhindered global sharing of technology and know-how… for handling Covid-19”. At the time, no vaccine had been approved to prevent the spread of the virus. But the 100 countries that joined the October petition over the following months then knew what has become obvious to everyone now: The pharmaceutical patent system is a killing machine.
There is now broad and growing support for the Trips waiver – among physicians, Nobel laureates, senators, and a large majority of the American public. On Wednesday, the Biden administration finally announced its intention to support one version of the proposal, changing course amid a global outbreak of Covid-19 cases. “The extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures,” said US Trade Representative Katherine Tai, committing to “text-based negotiations at the World Trade Organization.”
But a temporary waiver is only a temporary solution to a permanent crisis in the global health system. When AIDS exploded around the world in the 1990s, calls for affordable generic antiretroviral drugs to stem the pandemic in Africa were met with threats and lawsuits from pharmaceutical companies. And the Covid-19 pandemic is certainly not the end of this crisis: from Sars and Ebola to mutant strains of Covid-19, epidemiologists warn that we have entered a new era of pandemics.
To learn the lessons of a lost year in the face of Covid-19 – and prepare for a long century of recurring health emergencies – the temporary travel suspension must give way to a total transformation of the pharmaceutical patent system. Pausing the gears of the killing machine is not enough. Our obligation is to dismantle it.
This obligation belongs to the United States more than to any other country. The US government has played both the architect and the enforcer of the intellectual property regime, threatening sanctions against countries like Brazil, Thailand and South Africa for daring to promote generic production of life-saving drugs.
Yet an overwhelming majority of American voters support a more radical transformation of the pharmaceutical patent system. New poll from Data for Progress and Progressive International finds 59% of U.S. voters support lifting all patent protections to produce generic versions of life-saving drugs for critical illnesses, from Covid-19 and HIV / AIDS to heart disease and diabetes.
These preferences are not expressions of charity. The citizens of the United States are among the main victims of the patent system: According to a recent survey, one in four Americans cannot fill their prescriptions because of the astronomical prices of drugs. The Covid-19 vaccine may have been provided free to US citizens this time around, but there is no reason to expect the government to continue footing the bill when drug-resistant strains reappear in the country and send millions of uninsured families. to hospital for treatment.
Pharmaceutical companies will pressure our representatives to say they are in the best position to handle these pandemics – that what is good for American pharmaceutical research and manufacturers (PhRMA) is good for America. “More than at any other time in history, society is seeing and benefiting from innovation backed by intellectual property,” they wrote in a letter to Joe Biden, urging him to reject the Trips waiver at the ‘WTO.
But American voters – whose taxes funded the medical breakthrough behind Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccine, just like British voters funded AstraZeneca – are calling BS. Asked whether the U.S. government should force Moderna to share its vaccine technology with manufacturers around the world, 59 percent of U.S. voters approved versus just 27 percent who opposed, according to Data’s new poll. for Progress and Progressive International.
The new findings reflect growing frustration with the primacy of profit in the public health system – not just the profits of pharmaceutical companies during this pandemic (Pfizer earned $ 3.5 billion on its vaccine in the first quarter of 2021 only), but also the refusal to invest in life-saving drugs that do not yield such massive returns. “When prices are so low that they prevent profits, companies exit the market,” the WHO reported in 2017. The pharmaceutical industry can argue that removing patent protections will hamper future drug production. But it was governments that had to step in to catalyze vaccine production – and the public that assumed the risks.
There can be no illusions about the prospects of such a radical reorientation of American foreign policy. While Biden’s domestic agenda has sought to break with past dogmas of fiscal discipline and public divestment, his foreign policy has largely preserved the frameworks he inherited from Donald Trump and Barack Obama before him. This is no coincidence: the architecture of global governance was designed to be insulated from democratic pressures. Jan Tumlir, architect of the United Nations General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, described the project most clearly: “International rules protect the world market from governments.”
But power doesn’t concede anything without a demand, and at times like these – when the paradigm shifts and the US president seems ready to push against the old third rails of US politics – identifying the right demand is as important as its articulation. Suspending Covid-19 patents can be an essential first step. But as American voters seem to understand, there is a long way to go out of this pandemic. We will need big jumps to get there.