Big Pharma Monopolies Kill Access to COVID Meds

To end the pandemic, the world needs more vaccines, diagnostic tests and treatments now. That’s why thousands of organizations worldwide, hundreds of Nobel laureates and former prime ministers and presidents, and even the Pope demanded an emergency waiver of Big Pharma monopolies now imposed by trade agreements. These barriers empower a few pharmaceutical corporations to decide how much and where vital COVID-19 medicines will be made and sold.

Anyone in the United States who wants a COVID-19 vaccine can get one. But most people in low-income countries have not had their first shot, with less than 20% fully vaccinated. In addition to causing avoidable deaths and economic devastation, the shortage of COVID medications in developing countries means raging outbreaks that allow the virus to mutate into new variants.

Mass outbreaks anywhere mean new COVID-19 variants will develop. The pandemic will never end until vaccines, treatments and tests are widely available around the world. We know there is no end to COVID’s public health disaster and resulting economic crises unless people everywhere are vaccinated, because we have lived through the Delta and then Omicron variants that fueled new waves of infection and death around the globe.

Governments gave billions of our tax dollars to a few pharmaceutical giants to develop and distribute COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. They have used intellectual property monopolies to limit production and access and have made tens of billions in windfall profits on COVID-19. Now they are creating second-generation vaccines designed to stop infection from more recent variants. If the world restarts the race between vaccines and variants with a few corporations controlling production and access, we know what will happen: With most people in poor nations unable to get the best vaccines, new variants will develop, which could be more lethal, and the pandemic will continue endlessly.

More than 120 countries, including the United States, announced support for a temporary, emergency COVID-19 waiver of World Trade Organization (WTO) Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) rules. The TRIPS agreement and similar rules in free trade agreements are the opposite of “free trade.” They require governments to issue monopoly patent licenses to pharmaceutical corporations, which lets them limit supply and charge high prices.

A temporary TRIPS waiver is critical so the needed supplies of COVID vaccines, treatments and diagnostic tests can be produced in as many places as possible and as quickly as possible. But almost two years after it was initially proposed by South Africa and India, the waiver was successfully blocked by three WTO members: the European Union, led by Germany, plus Switzerland and the UK. Instead of pushing its allies to get out of the way of the rest of the world, the U.S. government insisted that any WTO deal on COVID medicines only cover vaccines, not the life-saving treatments at the heart of our “test and treat” COVID strategy.  

Under the WTO’s undemocratic operating procedures, a waiver agreement cosponsored by 65 WTO member countries was never allowed onto the table for negotiation. Instead, the WTO staff wrote a rump document that reflects the European pro-Pharma position. It does not waive intellectual property barriers and instead adds new restrictions relative to the existing WTO barriers against access to medicine. Unions and civil society organizations throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America called on their governments to reject this text. India’s Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal said of the rump text: “…what we are getting is completely half-baked and it will not allow us to make any vaccines. They have no intention of allowing therapeutics and diagnostics.” The Mexican Undersecretary of Prevention and Health Promotion, Hugo López-Gatell Ramírez said: “For almost two years, a handful of rich countries have resisted a life-saving proposal tabled by India and South Africa that could speed up global COVID-19 vaccination, making a mockery of the World Trade Organization. Now, these countries are attempting to stitch up the process in order to put the profits of Big Pharma over people’s lives… Ahead of these meetings, a damaging new proposal has emerged that is being pushed by the European Union and WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. This proposal would be worse than none at all.”

At the WTO’s mid-June 2022 Ministerial Conference, the WTO staff railroaded through this sham text that had no country sponsors instead of a waiver supported by more than 100 countries. This outcome is a dangerous public health failure that threatens us with more deadly COVID variants and more economic pain. It also was a vulgar display of multilateralism’s demise when a few rich countries flacking for pharmaceutical corporations can get an assist from a global institution’s staff to block the will of 100-plus countries united to improve access to medicines in a deadly pandemic.

Going forward, efforts for global access to COVID vaccines, treatments and tests can only escalate in scope and tactics given the WTO legal mechanism designed for such emergencies has failed. Civil society worldwide has united in a call for governments to take every action to save lives using WTO flexibilities when possible or defying WTO rules when necessary, and for countries to pledge a ceasefire of not using WTO or other trade mechanisms to attack other countries’ COVID medicine access policies.

Certainly, no one engaged in the fight for global access to COVID-19 vaccines, treatments and tests is giving up or going away, because it’s not possible to do so when tens of millions of lives and livelihoods are at stake.

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