By Miguel Angel Hernandez (an IWU-FI leader)
At the World Trade Organisation’s General Council meeting on 5-6 May, the United States announced its decision to support the waiver of intellectual property protections for Covid-19 vaccines. Specifically, the Biden administration would join the countries that have proposed ditching Covid-19 patents, which are currently in the hands of the big pharmaceutical transnationals.
The United States, along with the European Union, England, Norway, Switzerland, Canada, Australia, Japan, Chile, Colombia and Brazil, most of them vaccine producers, had insistently refused to release the patents. They were the chief defenders of the interests of the pharmaceutical transnationals in the WTO.
Why did the US change its position?
Undoubtedly, this change results from growing international pressure because of the social debacle caused by the pandemic. That pressure has been building since October last year when India and South Africa led an initiative that brought together some 99 countries to ask the WTO to waive patents on vaccines.
Since then, the global clamour has grown. Today over 100 countries join India and South Africa. This growing global movement is joined by some 170 world personalities such as former Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and Felipe Gonzalez, and renowned international organisations such as Médecins Sans Frontières, Oxfam, Amnesty International, Frontline Aids and Global Justice Now. A recent initiative for a “People’s Vaccine” led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Muhammad Yunus and supported by other Nobel laureates was recently made public and has attracted over 2 million signatures, including actors George Clooney and Forest Whitaker, and actress Sharon Stone. The IWU-FI has been pushing for months for a campaign that joins the global pressure for the ditching of the Covid-19 vaccine patents.
The new position adopted by Biden is also determined by the social situation in the United States itself. There are still 10 million unemployed and the economy contracted by 3.5 per cent of GDP in 2020, the worst since WWII post-war period.
The social discontent has been expressed in the teachers’ strikes in Oklahoma, Kentucky, West Virginia, Los Angeles and Chicago; the protests of nurses and doctors in the pandemic’s framework in different cities; the General Motors strike, as well as the powerful anti-racist popular uprising in 2020 over the assassination of George Floyd, are the internal reasons that explain this change in the American government’s position on vaccines and patents.
Joe Biden became President of the United States after the defeat of the far-right and reactionary Trump administration, precisely because of this uprising. The Democratic administration knows that it is riding on a powder keg, in a country where social unrest has been growing in recent years.
Not all that glitters is gold
The US Trade Representative was quick to say that the government believes strongly in intellectual property rights. Let there be no doubt that the US government defends the interests of pharmaceutical companies. He added that “the process will be slow”, that WTO negotiations will take time. There should be no illusions about a quick release of the patents that are still controlled by the big pharmaceutical transnationals.
The multinational Pfizer has already come out against Biden’s announcement. So did Angela Merkel, Germany’s prime minister, defending the interests of the German laboratory BioNTech, Pfizer’s partner.
Biden’s government says it agrees to suspend patents. If he were consistent with this, he should release the patents in its own country, specifically with Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, laboratories based in his country.
According to World Health Organisation (WHO) data, over 87 per cent of vaccine doses administered globally, as of early April, were injected in the richest countries, while low-income countries received only 0.2 per cent of the vaccines produced so far. Duke University estimates that there are 300 million doses of vaccine left over in the US, yet the Biden administration is not donating the millions of vaccines they purchased and will not use to poorer countries.
The US changes its position when there is a recent outbreak of the pandemic on a global scale, thus, tacitly recognising that patents are an obstacle to access to vaccines and a straitjacket on global vaccine production. This prevents a fairer distribution of vaccines among all countries.
The other element is that the United States needs its economy to recover to pre-pandemic levels, as well as the world capitalist economy to emerge from the deepest economic crisis experienced since the end of WWII.
The International Workers’ Unity – Fourth International says the Biden administration’s announcement on patents is no guarantee that they will be released. Today, more than ever, it is necessary to step up the worldwide campaign different organisations are developing, demanding the waiver of patents to ensure, within this emergency, that all state and private laboratories in the world produce at maximum capacity, the only way to achieve mass vaccination throughout the world.
We will continue to promote the campaign we have been developing for several months now, joining forces with other organisations, doctors, specialists, nurses and health workers in all the countries where we are present. Only with the worldwide mobilisation of workers and the people will we ditch the patents on Covid-19 vaccines.
7 March 2021