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Hundreds of Prominent US Civil Society Organizations Call on Pres. Biden to Stop Blocking COVID-19 WTO Waiver to Boost Vaccines, Treatments Worldwide

MSF, Oxfam, Partners In Health, Human Rights Watch, Public Citizen, MoveOn, Indivisible, Unions, Faith Groups, Citizens Trade Campaign, Health GAP, and More Urge U.S. Support for Waiver at March 1-2 WTO General Council

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: February 26, 2021

CONTACT:  Matt Groch mgroch@citizen.org (202) 454-5111

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. consumer, faith, health, labor, human rights, development and other civil society groups urged the White House to support an emergency COVID-19 waiver of World Trade Organization (WTO) intellectual property rules, so that greater supplies of vaccines, treatments, and diagnostic tests can be produced in as many places as possible as quickly as possible. The pandemic cannot be stopped anywhere unless vaccines, tests, and treatments are available everywhere, so variants that evade current vaccines do not develop.

At a press conference joined by Reps. Rosa DeLauro, (D-Conn.), Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), U.S. civil society leaders released a letter signed by hundreds of prominent U.S. organizations calling on the Biden administration to join more than 100 nations in support of the waiver. The Trump administration led a handful of countries opposed to the waiver at the WTO. At two recent WTO committee meetings, the new administration has not reversed the Trump era obstruction of the waiver.

The WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) requires countries to provide lengthy monopoly protections for medicines, tests, and technologies used to produce them. While there is production capacity in every region, WTO rules block the timely and unfettered access to the formulas and technology needed to boost manufacturing. Unless much greater volumes are made, many people in developing nations may not get COVID-19 vaccines until 2024. The unnecessary loss of life will be compounded by the loss of livelihoods for millions. According to an International Chamber of Commerce study, the world could face economic losses of more than $9 trillion under the scenario of wealthy nations being fully vaccinated by mid-2021, but poor countries largely shut out.

Statements from Participants:


U.S. Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), Appropriations Committee chair

“The COVID-19 pandemic knows no borders and the need for vaccine development and dissemination across the globe is critically important. The TRIPS waiver raised by India and South Africa at the WTO would help the global community move forward in defeating the scourge of COVID-19 by making diagnostics, treatments, and vaccines available in developing countries. We must make vaccines available everywhere if we are going to defeat this virus anywhere. The U.S. has a moral imperative to act and support this waiver at the WTO, and I am hopeful that the Biden Administration will support this waiver to help our allies around the globe bring an end to this pandemic.”


U.S. Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), Ways and Means Subcommittee on Trade chair

“As a global community, we must come together and use every tool at our disposal to stop this pandemic,” Blumenauer said. “Unfortunately, we have seen intellectual property rules and corporate greed have disastrous impacts for public health during past epidemics, and we need to ensure that this doesn’t happen again. Working to ensure that trade rules do not stunt the developing world’s access to vaccines, treatments, and diagnostic tests is a clear step. It’s the right thing to do not only for our country, but for the entire world.”

U.S. Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Senior Chief Deputy Whip and Energy and Commerce Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee chair

“I support the proposed TRIPS waiver because I support equitable vaccine distribution worldwide, because if vaccines aren’t available everywhere, we won’t be able to crush the virus anywhere. The new COVID-19 variants, which show more resistance to vaccines, prove that further delay in immunity around the world will lead to faster and stronger mutations. Equitable access is essential. Our globalized economy cannot recover if only parts of the world are vaccinated and have protection against the virus. We must make vaccines available everywhere if we are going to crush the virus anywhere.”

Paul Farmer, Co-Founder, Partners In Health

“If we want to stop COVID-19 here, we have to stop it everywhere. The world does not have time to wait for the usual, slow, and unequal distribution of treatments, diagnostics, and vaccines. We can take a lesson from the global AIDS movements and make sure patent laws don’t block access to lifesaving therapies for the poor. It’s a similar story for vaccines, which in the case of covid19 we’re so lucky to have and in such short order. Moderna has waived these rights and others should follow suit as we deploy one of the mainstays required to end this pandemic.”

Sara Nelson, President, Association of Flight Attendants-CWA

"COVID does not have borders and neither should vaccine access. Flight Attendants know our jobs depend on a strong global network. We must work to ensure that people around the world have access to the vaccine in order to eradicate this virus. We cannot succeed as a global community without taking care of all people."


Sister Simone Campbell, Executive Director, NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice

“We have learned over the past year that pandemics are communal struggles. We are all vulnerable, and we all can help control the virus. In our nation, over 500,000 people have died and millions have been infected. The U.S. government has invested over $13 billion in taxpayer funds to create vaccines, and other developed nations have invested as well. Now, we in these rich nations have an obligation to share with the global community. That is the only way to protect the vulnerable here and abroad. Both faith and pragmatics demand it. When we faithfully care for our neighbors, we pragmatically care for ourselves.”

Yuanqiong Hu, Policy Co-coordinator, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) Access Campaign

“Governments must not squander this historic opportunity and avoid repeating the painful lessons of the early years of the HIV/AIDS response. This proposal would give countries more ways to tackle the legal barriers to maximizing production and supply of medical products needed for COVID-19 treatment and prevention. Defending monopoly protection is the antithesis to the current call for COVID-19 medicines and vaccines to be treated as global public goods. In these unprecedented times, governments should act together in the interest of all people everywhere.”

Akshaya Kumar, Director of Crisis Advocacy and Special Projects, Human Rights Watch 

"Sharing the recipe for vaccines by pooling intellectual property and issuing global, open, and non-exclusive licenses could help scale up manufacturing and expand the number of vaccine doses made. This means instead of arguing about how to ration better we could be rationing less."

Brook Baker, Health GAP Senior Policy Analyst & Northeastern University Professor of Law

"As an expert in intellectual property law and access to life-saving medicines, I can assure the Biden administration that IP barriers are real, and they're blocking millions of people around the world from accessing life-saving COVID-19 vaccines. By obstructing the TRIPS waiver proposal, President Biden is breaking his promise to share COVID-19 vaccine technologies with the world. His administration must support the TRIPS waiver and send a message to big pharma that it's unacceptable to write off the lives of 90% of people in low- and middle-income countries."

Arthur Stamoulis, Executive Director, Citizens Trade Campaign

“Supporting this waiver is an easy way for the Biden administration to start reestablishing the United States’ standing within the international community, while also benefiting public health and economic recovery here at home. Trade rules cannot be a cudgel used to force countries into putting pharmaceutical company profits ahead of human life.”

Lori Wallach, Director, Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch

“What is the possible upside of the U.S. blocking this WTO waiver supported by most countries given there is manufacturing capacity around the globe to greatly increase supplies of vaccines, tests, and treatments if formulas and technologies are shared? We are in a race against time with a pandemic that cannot be stopped unless vaccines, tests, and treatments are available everywhere because outbreaks anywhere spawn variants that can evade vaccines and/or are more infectious.”

Link to Recording of Full Press Conference

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Rethinking Trade - Season 1 Episode 28: What The Biden Administration Can Do To Fix Our Trade Mess, Part 2

The Biden administration inherited a political and trade policy landscape transformed since the end of the Obama presidency by both the Trump trade strategy and the COVID-19 pandemic.

To deliver on its Build Back Better promises, the administration must create new approaches to trade that prioritize good jobs, promote the environmental and energy policies needed to counter climate catastrophe, protect consumer health and safety, and promote small business by breaking up monopolies.

In part one of a two-part series, we discuss the short and middle-term steps the Biden Administration should take to accomplish these goals. Welcome to the Cliff Notes version of the Transition Memo on Trade Policy, recently released by Public Citizen and the United Brotherhood of Carpenters.

Learn more at rethinktrade.org.

Music: Groove Grove by Kevin MacLeod 

Link: https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3831-groove-grove

License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Transcribed by Sally King

Ryan: Welcome back to Rethinking Trade where we don't just talk about trade policy, we fight change it. I'm Ryan, and I'm joined once again by our in house trade expert, Lori Wallach. So Lori, two weeks ago, we ran through day one and first 100 day suggestions for the Biden administration on how to fix our rotten trade policies. Today, we're going to jump into the longer-term changes laid out in the recent transition memo and trade policy that Public Citizen and the Carpenters Union put together. For the listeners, you should definitely check out part one as well. But here's part two. Lori, are you ready to answer some questions?

Lori: I am.

Ryan: So like last time, I'm going to read the headline from this document for each of these policy proposals. You're going to have about one minute to explain it to our listeners, when you hear the buzzer means your time is just about up. You ready to go?

Lori: I am.

Ryan: All right, part two, number one: Conduct an inclusive, comprehensive, transparent process to review existing trade agreements for consistency with the Build Back Better plan.

Lori: So that's kind of self-explanatory. The point is that many terms in our existing trade agreements have nothing to do with trade per se, but rather conflict with the climate and the health and economic justice focus of the Build Back Better plan. And its things as diverse as the ban on buy local or buy American procurement, which is used to reinvest our tax dollars into developing new EV electric vehicle technology or renewable energy sources domestically, it is rules to get subsidies that could help that could stop the government from investing in making more medicine domestically, it is rules about standards that could basically require us to import goods that are climate dangerous and not be able to distinguish. And so all of that stuff needs to be reviewed needs to be fixed. So our trade agreements support, not undermine the whole wide set of non-trade goals that are in the bill back better plan.

Ryan: Number two: Launch a review of USMCA implementation to develop an action plan around labor and environmental rules.

Lori: So the revised NAFTA, which Trump called the US Mexico Canada agreement, had some improvements on paper, but a lot of it still is not implemented. And there are a lot of powerful interests and elite players in the governments of the three countries that may or may not be interested in implementing all of it. So it's really important that the people and planet parts of that agreement, the labor standards, the environmental standards, water quality, etc, that a plan to make sure that stuff is actually translating from paper to improvements on the ground is created and then enforced. And that's everything from cracking down on those border maquiladora plants where workers are being forced to go back to work without COVID protections in Mexico, where unions are still being busted to making sure that the investment of water improvement funds and environmental cleanup money actually goes to where it's supposed to be.

Ryan: All right off to a good start again. Number three: Establish a position at the National Security Council focused on U.S. supply chain resilience.

Lori: So the idea here is we need an all government focus on rebuilding domestic supply chains, and also diversifying these sources of imports for critical goods. The COVID-19 crisis made clear to every American. Here we are in the richest country in the world, and we can't get basic stuff. I mean, we can't get the medical stuff like masks and enough medicine, which in itself is a crisis. But we can't get basic stuff so that if one country in a long, hyperglobalized thin supply chain, were to make, you know one product of food or one electronic product, you have to have the pieces only made each one in one country of 50 countries and one country goes down because there's sickness could be a natural disaster next time the whole thing falls apart. can't have that. This was a real lesson. And so we need coordinated plans to rebuild our resilience and to build stronger supply chains.

Ryan: Number four: Implement the Build Back better by American and other domestic preference program reforms.

Lori: So this is really actually extremely urgent. This is both a longer-term project where our new US Trade Representative will need to be negotiating with other countries to take back the policy space for how we use our taxpayer dollars in procurement that was given away and agreements like the WTO and NAFTA and CAFTA. Right now we have to treat the goods, the services, the companies from 60 other countries as if it was Buy American, so Buy American now means the US and 60 other countries. So that needs to get fixed, because that's in the terms of agreements that need to be renegotiated and President Biden has said he wants to renegotiate those so we, but also our trade partners, can use their tax dollars as a tool to develop their own economies and innovate and invest in their own people. But in the short term, the president needs to immediately wave with respect to the emergency trillions of dollars for COVID relief, and recovery, these limits that make us basically break Buy American. Otherwise, instead of stimulating our economy, instead of starting to invest in being more resilient at home, that money is just gonna get offshored. And there's no conditions on labor standards or environmental human rights conditions. So it could mean our tax dollars go to invest in, you know, goods made in horrible human rights conditions in China, or in plants have busted unions in Mexico. So this is both the short term and long term problem.

Ryan: Number five: Launch a review process to formulate a new US position on digital trade.

Lori: So digital trade is the corporate brand that the Big Tech firms have given to trying to use trade agreements to impose worldwide limits on the regulation of the Big Tech platforms. And some very bad rules like that are in the revised NAFTA, but and in an agreement with Japan that the US pushed, but also they're being pushed at the World Trade Organization for the whole world. And the US has been one of the leaders in pushing for these rules that basically mean governments can't regulate for our consumer data privacy, something that's a huge problem in the US and in many countries, but the US is way behind everyone else. It means that we can't get rid of the liability waiver. That right now means things you buy online, Amazon and other companies pretend that they have no product safety liability. So if the product kills you, you could sue a store, but you can't sue them, they pretend they're not the buyer. They pretend the seller, I mean, they pretend they're just a communications platform, and also a lot of problems around discrimination based on the algorithms that the companies use. So that, you know, white people are offered information on better jobs and black people get less information on good housing, all of those kind of rules, we have to have a new approach to because we need to regulate big tech, not let them use trade agreements, to basically abuse people worldwide.

Ryan: Number six: Implement new US Trade Representative transparency standards.

Lori: So it's not so much the USTR per se, but rather the whole agency. Historically, there has been a lot of behind closed doors, negotiation and secrets information. And these are these negotiations are making policy on things that affect all facets of our everyday lives. But unlike say the Freedom of Information Act, we can get government documents or the government the Sunshine Act, where meetings have to be open. There's a lot of secretive stuff that happens in trade. That is just inappropriate, given what today's trade agreements have meddling in from, you know, access to medicines, to food safety, to where our tax dollars go. So we need to actually have a much more open process so that people not only can get access to the information and know what the government is doing, ostensibly on our behalf but also so that we can have more of a means of giving input of what we want. Right now. There are 500 official advisors who are cleared to see the secret documents have special access, and almost all of them are corporate that can't stand.

Ryan: Number Seven: Work with Congress to update trade preference programs, including the Generalized System of Preferences or GSP, and an early reauthorization of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA).

Lori: So in addition to trade agreements, the US has what are called trade preference programs. Nice statutory programs that set terms for special, better access into the US market for developing countries that are better tariff, lower tariff rates, for instance, that are included in our global WTO commitments. And the idea that these programs is they should be development programs. And they need to have conditions are pro-development for what a country has to do to get these special market access rights. Unfortunately, over time, the agreements haven't kept up to the transformation and trade policy. So GSP has some labor standards, but they're pretty weak. And the African Growth and Opportunity Act has a variety of conditions you wouldn't want to impose on countries we're trying to help them develop. And in both instances, the programs need to be updated to basically put people and planet standards in place. But also, with the African Growth and Opportunity Act. It needs to be reauthorized early because President Trump was running around to African countries threatening it would go away, and they better sign up for a whole free trade agreement or else which really isn't in their interest or ours.

Ryan: Number eight: Work with the Treasury Department to require all foreign private-sector sovereign wealth fund controlled or state-owned enterprises seeking to list on us capital markets to meet all transparency standards to which US domestic firms are subject.

Lori: Okay, so that was a mouthful. But what that boils down to...

Ryan: That almost took me a minute.

Lori: What that boils down to is this scam, which is the Treasury Department has been waiving the requirements, particularly for a state-owned enterprise means just literally that government-owned firm. There are a lot of Chinese state-owned enterprises, but also some of you there, it's not inherently a problematic thing. You know, the US government port authorities are like a state-owned enterprise. But there are a lot of commercial ones that aren't running services like the Tennessee Valley Authority is a state-owned enterprise. But yeah, it's a government service. But the ones that are competing and trade from other countries and sovereign wealth funders, that's government money, that is investing as if it were a private investor, they're allowed to go to the stock markets, which is where the capital market is so to the New York Stock Exchange, without meeting all the normal requirements that US firms be subject to. And what this is caused is these real conflicts where Saudi Arabian state-owned enterprises and sovereign wealth funds and others from the oil-producing nations, and Chinese state-owned enterprises are buying up US firms that might have a security concern with such ownership or countries with really horrific human rights reputations are buying up sensitive firms and we don't know and or they're getting money on the capital markets, without us knowing. So something's being listed. And we're having us stock buyers put money into it and make it powerful. We don't know who it really is.

Ryan: Number nine: Direct the Department of Commerce to declare that China is not a market economy.

Lori: So this is another kind of wonky thing, but it's actually has a lot of repercussions. How you ask domestic trade policy works with respect to different trade, cheating remedies, like dumping stuff on the US market, below the price of production, that and also how a country is treated at the World Trade Organization has to do with whether or not a country is considered a market economy. If you're a market economy, you get kind of treatment the US, Canada, Brazil, India, Japan, Korea, South Africa get but if you're not a market economy, ie you have a lot of government intervention, a lot of government funding. So you know, a country like China, then you are treated with, I would say, more wariness about what's a subsidy and what isn't? What's fair trade and what isn't? And so it's going to make a big deal for US jobs. And for US companies, especially those that try and create some new US investment in things like electric vehicles and battery storage, new materials, the cutting edge industries, that it's clear, China's not a market economy and they need to be treated that way. And China has been making a lot of threats about if countries don't declare the market economy, they're going to do this or they're going to do that. And so far all the world's countries have stuck together and said, if you're a market economy you are but you're not so you're not and that should stay the current position.

Ryan: All right, we are at the final one number 10: Don't continue with business as usual with respect to publishing a national trade estimates report that includes lists of other countries environmental food, safety, health. and other public interest protections identified as, quote, illegal trade barriers.

Lori: So every March 1, the US government comes out with a report called the National Trade Estimates. It sounds like innocuous, it's not. It's a country-by-country report where, in the course of the year leading up to it, US industry is invited to offer things that they think are unfair trade practices of other countries. And they get listed in the official government report of things these other countries better get rid of. And so the problem is, it ends up being a list of, you know, there are some real trade problems in there, like subsidies or, you know, things that act like a quota a limit on imports, that aren't health or safety-related, and they're honest to god protection. But the vast majority of what is in this report is just targeting the environmental, health, worker safety, food safety, product safety, and other public interest protections that other countries have. And that won't be if they're if the US product has GMOs, and the country requires labeling, if it comes in, if it's not labeled, it can't come in. If another country, for instance, bans the use of chlorine washes, you know, basically crappy chicken, chicken that least liras, feces on it, dipped in chlorine, which is how our system works versus making sure it's clean on the front end. If it can't come in, it can't come in, if other countries will not, for instance, store computer data through the US, because we don't have any privacy protections. And we're not considered safe for that. All right. And so be, as long as it's not discriminatory, it shouldn't be on a trade shit-list. And that is what that national trade estimates list has become. And instead, it should focus on whether real trade problems, where there's actually a benefit for us workers to fixing real trade cheating and not become a hit list of other countries domestic policies that our companies don't like because some products they make can't be sold there.

Ryan: Good work, Laurie, I think you got 50% of them and under a minute. And again, folks should check the link in the summary of this episode, or just go to tradewatch.org. And you can see the transition memo on trade policy.

Lori: And for all the fun that Ryan and I are having about my trying to say what this means each of these bullets in one minute. It's worth reading the memo because it does spell out a roadmap to how we could have a US trade policy taking the opportunity of an incoming administration that seems keen to change some things to actually try and have policies that put people on the planet as a priority.

Ryan: Rethinking trade is produced by Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, I would encourage you to visit rethinktrade.org as well as tradewatch.org to educate yourself and to find out how you can get involved in the work we're doing to fight for fairer and more equitable trade policies.

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Rethinking Trade - Season 1 Episode 27: President Biden Should Reverse Trump's Deadly Obstruction of Global COVID-19 Vaccines

Millions of people around the world may not get COVID-19 vaccines until as late as 2024—unless President Biden reverses the Trump administration’s deadly position at the World Trade Organization (WTO).

SIGN THE PETITION: https://rethinktrade.org/actions/urge-biden-reverse-trumps-deadly-obstruction-of-global-covid-19-vaccine-access/

Transcribed by Sally King


Ryan: Welcome back to rethinking trade where we don't just talk about trade policy, we fight change it. I'm Ryan and I'm joined once again by our in house trade expert, Lori Wallach. Do you all remember the episode we did back in December about how rules at the World Trade Organization were preventing countries across the world from accessing the technology they need to produce COVID-19 vaccines and treatments and how the Trump administration had led the way in opposing a proposed waiver to temporarily on an emergency basis allow those countries to access that technology? Well, unfortunately, the situation has not changed even though Trump is out of office. So we are re-releasing that episode today. But before we go back to it, we're going to hear from Lori and get an update on the situation and hear a little bit about some of the campaign work that we are involved with to try to change the U.S.'s position at the WTO regarding these intellectual property protections for Big Pharma. Lori, why don't you just give us an update on what's happening and why this is so important right now.

Lori: So two really important things have happened since we last talked about the WTO rules that could really undermine the necessary supply of COVID vaccines and treatments and testing worldwide. Number one, the WTO had its first meeting since the by the Biden administration entered office. And unfortunately, it does not appear that the memo got to the permanent U.S. WTO staff sitting in Geneva, there has not yet been a new U.S, Trade Representative confirmed; she's going to be great. And there's no new U.S. WTO ambassador to give political marching orders. So that crew that is in Geneva all the time at the WTO just repeated the same old bad old pharma defense that Trump had been dishing out, which is basically, "Yeah, there's no need to change these WTO rules to make sure that the developing world also gets vaccines and gets treatments. We're just going to make sure that all these pharmaceutical companies get these monopoly rights." And you know, no shocker. The U.S. officials did not mention that these vaccines that the U.S. pharmaceutical companies they touted developed, were funded by us, the taxpayers. Yes, these companies did not put their own money up. They got U.S. government money, ie our tax dollars for the development for billions in pre-purchases to cover the expense of the testing, etc. So if there's ever been a time that a waiver of Monopoly rights about where and how much of something is going to be made, as far as medicine and its price, the vaccines for COVID would be the case. So unfortunately, new administration, but not yet a new position. And that's what's going to take everyone's activism. So as Ryan said, we have a petition going on about this, there are other things everyone can do. In addition to signing onto the petition, please consider calling your member of Congress, because here's the second development, it has become incredibly clear that no one anywhere will be safe from COVID. And this epidemic cannot be stopped in any one country, because we have all witnessed variants, mutations of the original virus that are developing wherever there are major outbreaks. And if we do not get vaccines to people around the world, we can vaccinate ourselves 100% in the U.S., but we're going to see a variant a mutation that's not going to be subject to that vaccine. Hell, that could reinfect people have antibodies from surviving new original COVID and anytime there's a chance of huge outbreaks there's a huge chance of more mutations. And the most recent studies suggest people in middle and low income countries won't be able to get vaccinated until the end of 2022. And people in the poorest countries until 2024. That means if we're being really self centered and thinking about just what it means for us, we in the U.S. 100% vaccinated, let's just say, will not be safe. If we do not get these TRIPS, rules waived. At the WTO, so that as much vaccine can be made in as many countries as possible, as quickly as possible so that everyone can get vaccinated, everyone can get tested, everyone can get treated, no one will be safe until everyone is safe. And right now, these WTO rules are a big impediment to all of that. So please help get the word out, help get the U.S. to join the rest of the world and do the right thing. The fix is not a heavy lift, the U.S. just needs to stop blocking the initiative by South Africa and India as the WTO that now has more than 100 countries supporting it. So that more vaccine more treatment, more testing can be produced worldwide. 

Ryan: You can find the link to the petition in the description of this podcast episode, or you can go to rethinktrade.org or tradewatch.org. You can find the petition there, sign it, share it with folks. And stay tuned, because what's following is our episode from December where we take a bit more of a deep dive into this issue.

Lori: So let's take one step back. The World Trade Organization enforces a dozen plus agreements, including the old trade rules, which are called GATT, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, that's the part that really is about trade. One of those other agreements is the thing you just mentioned Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights, which is often called TRIPS. That is basically the antithesis of free trade. That is a set of monopoly protections every WTO signatory country is obliged to guarantee to big pharmaceutical corporations. And that includes a guarantee of a 20 year monopoly. For any medicine, it creates periods of exclusivity over the data use to prove a drug is safe, so that the generic manufacturers sometimes have to wait even longer. All of those kinds of rules, of course, are really the opposite of what you think of for free trade, right competition. Those are rules designed to block competition to give monopoly powers to big pharmaceutical firms, they can charge any damn price they want for medicines. So in the face of having that imposed on 160 countries worldwide, we're all but the least developed countries are required to have these very stringent monopoly protections for big pharmaceutical firms. A set of countries led by South Africa and India, came in with a proposal now supported by dozens of countries. And that was to waive those pharmaceutical company, monopoly rights for temporarily anything during the COVID crisis that is necessary for the production of treatments of vaccines and the technologies around the production. So the actual medicines, and also the know-how to produce them. And it's really obvious why to do this, we need to get billions of doses of vaccines, hundreds of millions of doses of treatments. And the only way the whole world is going to get better, is if the whole world gets better. It's an epidemic. So it's actually in the interest of people all around the world to get enough of the vaccine made, so that there's no one who can't get it and quickly. But right now, the way the WTO rules are set up, if a country, for instance, simply copied the vaccine, or insisted that the company provide the know-how for how to copy the vaccine, then it would be in violation of these WTO rules. And a country's imperative to save lives, would subject the country to indefinite trade sanctions. So a developing country would have huge penalties billions of dollars put against its actual exports needed to keep its country going, because they put people's lives first.

Ryan: And what would that process actually look like if a country was held in in violation?

Lori: Well, let's just be super concrete, because sadly, this is not the first time this has happened. During the peak of the AIDS epidemic, when hundreds of thousands people were dying, antiretroviral treatments were available, but they were so prohibitively expensive, that throughout the developing world, in Brazil and South Africa, people were dying needlessly for whom if generic versions of these medicines could have been produced, their lives would have been the life of a person in the U.S. or Europe, with with AIDS which is basically the anti-retrovirals would make it a treatable perennial but treatable disease. Instead of having a chronic treated disease, people all over the global south are dying. And countries started to want to make their own medicines and some developing countries have the capacity India can do it. Argentina can do it South Africa, Brazil, and the United States on behalf of its big pharmaceutical companies basically threatened to go to the WTO and attack those specific countries for violating these trade agreement. pharma monopoly roles, instead of basically helping those countries try and save the lives of their people who had HIV or AIDS. And that case ended up blowing up because that was folks who remember, when Al Gore was running for president, people from act up, were following him around busting into his event screaming "greed kills." Well, that was a WTO TRIPS case, that was the gift them to back down the clinton ministration on these attacks using the WTO against HIV/AIDS medicines. So what happens with the sanctions is practical, one of these WTO tribunals decides that some country's health law is a violation of the WTO rules. And then the country is told you have 90 days to get rid of that regime for making medicine available that pharmaceutical generic company, and if you don't, then we're going to impose penalties on all of your exports. What that means practically is, for instance, every good that a developing country would export would be hit with a huge tariff on the way into other countries. So that basically, it's like a strangle. It's basically we're gonna choke you to death if you don't change. And we're going to do that by cutting off your exports.

Ryan: I know there's an effort underway right now to pressure the U.S. and other countries to support this waiver at the WTO and prioritize responding to the pandemic over protecting Big Pharma intellectual property rights. But ultimately, who has the power to change the U.S. position here? And also, what are the prospects of this position changing under the incoming Biden administration?

Lori: Ryan? That is exactly the question to ask. So the who has the power to change this? This is a position that's taken in the executive branch. It doesn't require Congress to pass anything. Whomever is the president and the president's top trade official, the U.S. Trade Representative decides the positions the United States will take at the World Trade Organization, the United States sits in a council it's called the general council with the other countries who are signatories to the WTO. The general council takes positions if the United States, which under the Trump administration has joined Europe and handful of other countries who are the homes of the big pharmaceutical corporations to block this proposal if the U.S. change sides, something the Biden administration could do without Congress again, and then what it would look like is, the instructions go from the White House to the U.S. representatives at the WTO in Geneva. And they go to that meeting, which the next one right now their meeting, we're going to say the wrong thing, the U.S. has been to say the wrong thing. So when it meets again, in January, that General Counsel, the U.S. can go in and say we now join those countries that want to temporarily waive the WTO special monopoly protections for Big Pharma. It's a temporary waiver until the epidemic crisis is over. It only applies to those medicines and technologies with respect to vaccines and treatments for this crisis. But we join putting public health first that's all it would take. And who can make that happen? Well, that's us. So we all need to be taking action to contact our members of the House or members of the Senate. And frankly, as soon as Joe Biden is sworn in the White House, which will be taking, of course the usual hotline, emails and letters, and the reason to get Congress engaged as this is not a one off. So these WTO rules in this particular waiver is extremely urgent. It's literally going to make the difference between life and death for people all over the world in relation to the COVID-19 epidemic. But this is a fight that we started with the NAFTA renegotiation, when we got the most extreme Big Pharma giveaways that Trump added to the old NAFTA making it worse, we got that out. But we need as the United States of America to have a new position about these kinds of pharma protections in trade agreements, they don't belong there at all. It's not just the WTO rules should be waived, but rather we need to negotiate these terms. So we're putting people's health first. Yes, we want to reward innovation. So when a company comes up with a great invention, there are ways to reward that, but the amount of time and what the balance is between people getting access to medicine, and the gluttonous profits that these Big Pharma companies make is a real problem. Because this is something where on the first day the Biden administration can show they're going a different way on trade. They're going to put people over profits, they're going to put health over Big Pharma. And this is one of those things they can do on their own if we all join inand push them to do it. 

Ryan: And if you go to rethinktrade.org, you can scroll to the bottom to the take action section and you can send a letter from there to your representative and senators. And on the eyes on trade blog. You can also which I'll link in the bio of this episode, you can read more about the WTO trips issue. Rethinking Trade is produced by public citizen's global trade watch, I would encourage you to visit rethinktrade.org as well as tradewatch.org to educate yourself and to find out how you can get involved in the work we're doing to fight for fairer and more equitable trade policies.

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Rethinking Trade - Season 1 Episode 26: What The Biden Administration Can Do To Fix Our Trade Mess, Part 1

The Biden administration inherited a political and trade policy landscape transformed since the end of the Obama presidency by both the Trump trade strategy and the COVID-19 pandemic.

To deliver on its Build Back Better promises, the administration must create new approaches to trade that prioritize good jobs, promote the environmental and energy policies needed to counter climate catastrophe, protect consumer health and safety, and promote small business by breaking up monopolies.

In part one of a two-part series, we discuss the short and middle-term steps the Biden Administration should take to accomplish these goals. Welcome to the Cliff Notes version of the Transition Memo on Trade Policy, recently released by Public Citizen and the United Brotherhood of Carpenters.

Transcribed by Sally King


Ryan: Welcome back to rethinking trade where we don't just talk about trade policy, we fight to change it. I'm Ryan, and I'm joined once again by our in house trade expert, Lori Wallach. So, Lori, we're recording this in the very first days of the new administration. And as much as the joy as it was watching Donald Trump leave the White House last week. This week, we are focusing on the hard work ahead of us. Importantly, we're not just talking about fixing the damage brought on by Trump, but by decades of corporate rigged trade policies. So Public Citizen and the Carpenters Union have just released a lengthy transition memo and trade policy which you helped author. The memo lays out a lot of suggestions for fixing US trade policy. So I suggest listeners follow the link in the description to read all of it. But today, we're going to do a sort of 20 questions style episode covering the memos day one and first 100 day suggestions for the Bible administration. Before we get started, though, Lori, maybe you can just give us a bit of an overview of the vision laid out in this memo,

Lori: I think it could be useful to first start with a little bit of that context. The Biden administration is inheriting a US trade policy and political landscape that has been transformed since the end of the Obama presidency by both Trump and COVID-19. So the COVID-19 crisis, and really the inability of the world's richest country to make or get essential goods in the face of crisis has awakened a lot more Americans two fundamental problems with the current trade regime concentrating production, a few low wage countries, and having destroyed 60,000 us manufacturing facilities in the last 25 years and the hyperglobalisation. That's been implemented by agreements like the World Trade Organization, and NAFTA, that have left lots of countries really not all resilient, lis supply chains stretched super thin. So lots of countries just couldn't get self or gear up to make the stuff they needed. And then you have the Trump effect of Trump becoming president, by connecting to many Americans real anger, about the good manufacturing jobs that are trade policies implemented by Democratic and Republican Presidents alike, have killed and what it's done to cities and towns across this country, to have the almost 70% of Americans in the workforce without a college degree. See their lives go from a middle class, livelihood to scraping by and uncertainty, and that anger was seized by Trump. But then Trump failed to implement the critical changes that were necessary to really significantly alter the outcomes of US trade policy. Now, on the one hand, there is one really good thing, which is Trump's Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer. managed to create an enormous amount of leverage pushing in the right direction generally. And the new Trade Representative, a very capable person and Katherine Tai will inherit a bunch of that leverage the outstanding tariffs against China, the revised North American Free Trade Agreement, which has some good stuff, but isn't getting enforced yet. There are some big problems with the enforcement. So there's some good stuff to work with at the World Trade Organization, as well, where there's a bunch of new leverage because of what light hyzer did. So when you then look at what is it exactly that ought to get done? It boils down to something really simple. We really need to change us trade policy to promote not undermined the major domestic policy goals, like dealing with good jobs and decent wages and the underlying economic inequality and racial inequality that has been exacerbated by years of outsourcing good middle-class jobs, and the weakness and frailty in our health and economic security that we have seen with the loss of the ability to make stuff. And making sure in the middle of a climate crisis that is a planetary imperative to deal with. We are harnessing our trade policies to cure the climate crisis, not as has been the past make it worse. And as we face all of the simultaneous challenges, our current trade policies conflict with a lot of the policies that this administration says we're going to implement things that countries around the world say have to happen. And so the highest of the top-line agenda is, we have to get rid of the policies embedded in our trade agreements by corporations who rigged the rules, that undermine good jobs and affordable medicine and a livable planet. And then we need to put in place the missing roles that prioritize people in planets so that the global economy is harnessed to work for us not to make a handful of really big corporations even richer.

Ryan: And we're going to get into the specifics about how to do that. Now, how I structured this Lori is it's going to be like 20 questions, but really 20 statements. And I'm going to read the headline from the transition memo for each of these proposals. And then you're going to have one minute to explain to our listeners the context of each one. I'm going to set a buzzer on my phones when you hear the buzzer. Time is up, we're almost up. So you have to wrap up. Are you ready? 

Lori: I'm really nervous but ready.

Ryan: It's like a game show. Lori: Dun, dun, dun dun, Ryan: A very geeky game show. Okay, this is for the day one immediate stuff. Number one: nominate a US trade representative who is suited to the mission of transforming US trade policy towards a pro-worker, pro-small business, pro-health and pro-environment focus,

Lori: Ding, ding, ding. That was done. Katherine Tai is a terrific nominee for the US trade representative's office, who will hopefully be quickly confirmed. She is very knowledgeable. She has the right perspective and thinking about how to fix our trade policies. So it works for people on the planet. She's very hard-working, she's very strategic. She is the best Democratic nominee for USTR. That could have been possible. So check the box that was done.

Ryan: We are off to a good start number to launch the buy American Trade Pack plan described in the Build Back Better plan.

Lori: So that one is a little bit more of a mixed story. The good news is on the 25th of January, the President issued an executive order that covered most of the territory of what needs to be done. But that executive order did not actually do the things that are necessary to improve the policy. So it will be a matter of watching closely about whether they follow through on a lot of the things that they said they would do in this executive order. If they do it could make a big difference. The big issue here is that the President's about to spend almost $2 trillion in very much needed COVID stimulus emergency relief. But if they don't close the loophole that currently has 60 other countries treated like by American thanks to trade agreements, they no longer that money is going to get offshored instead of being invested back into our job. And it won't stimulate the economy.

Ryan: And folks can see the public citizen statement on the buy American executive order at tradewatch.org. Number three, issue an executive order to remedy abuses of de minimis import provisions by big tech platforms.

Lori: It sounds complicated, but it's not. It's a loophole. The big online sales platform slipped into law in 2015. That means that every day you can bring in imported $800 of stuff with no tariffs, no taxes, no inspection. The trick is the Amazon and the other platforms have it set up so that you the customer, not them, the company is considered the importer. What does that mean? They're bringing in hundreds of millions of packages by air that don't get inspected, that don't get taxed. It's dangerous for the consumer. It's not fair to the brick and mortar store that actually has to pay the taxes when they bring in the three $700 bicycles. They're paying tariffs and taxes and having that stuff all inspected. But if we each individually buy those two bicycles. Amazon's making windfall profit, and it's not fair and it's not safe and it's easy enough to fix. We just have to do it.

Ryan: Okay, number four, announced that the new USTR will consult with Congress stakeholders and allied countries to develop a comprehensive us approach to the future of the World Trade Organization.

Lori: And then there's an additional thing and will not support appellate body appointments during this process. So that's the punchline that's very important. The previous administration stomped along the appointment of the final judges at the WTO. These are the folks who basically order countries to change their laws if their food safety standards are too high, or their financial regulations are too strong, or their environmental laws are too protective of the planet. And so there was a bunch of cases where these on appointed international lawyers in Geneva were just making stuff up and making countries change laws. And it wasn't even stuff countries that signed up to at the WTO. So right now, we need to figure out before the US starts approving new judges how the rules need to get changed both the procedural rules and the substance. So what we need here is a policy where we basically have a big conversation, what are the goals of the WTO? Heck, it's already 20 years old anyway, it hasn't worked out well. So what rules do we need to change what procedures should be changed, and we shouldn't start up the whole thing, again, to attack our laws and undermine our goals unless and until we know how to fix it.

Ryan: Number five, announced a moratorium of any new trade agreements until a comprehensive review has been undertaken to develop a new trade agreement model.

Lori: So the administration committed candidate Joe Biden committed that they weren't going to do any more trade agreements and less until they had made major investments in domestic infrastructure worker education and training and manufacturing capacity. And the idea was to get our house in order before we write new agreements, but also to make sure we have agreements and new way of doing them that promote goals like good jobs, good wages, etc. So the big question is, will they stick to that 100%. And what that would mean is not picking up the trade agreements that include a lot of really problematic goodies for big tech and Big Pharma and the financial services, the Wall Street guys, there are agreements being negotiated right now at the United Kingdom, and with Kenya, that are not the right model. And this moratorium needs to apply to those need to go into the deep freeze, if not the recycling bin. And then there's a really worrisome agreement, global wine at the WTO, that would have all kinds of new rights and privileges for big tech firms that you couldn't regulate them, they could basically have their way with our privacy, etc. And that needs to also be part of the moratorium.

Ryan: Number six: Direct US Customs and Border Protection to issue a regional withhold release order on all-cotton goods imported from the Zhenjiang region of China.

Lori: So this is easy and quick, that's actually got done so this administration just needs to keep it in place. What that means is basically an assumption that goods that come from that region, are made with forced labor in these abusive prison internment camps that the Chinese government has filled with ethnic Muslim minorities from the region. And you have to prove as the importer, that the production chain is without forced labor, its assumption that it can't come in unless you can prove it's not forced labor. And that creates basically pressure on China to reverse its behavior.

Ryan: Number seven: Announced that existing tariffs on Chinese goods will be maintained while the new administration develops its demands with respect to Chinese subsidies, currency misalignment, and labor and human rights abuses.

Lori: So this is like the WTO situation. You have leverage going in as a new administration. In this case, it's 30% tariffs on $350 billion worth of stuff. And as you can imagine, all the corporate lobbies are screaming take off, the tariffs take off the tariffs, except those tariffs are leverage. China's imports to the US have declined in the sectors that have the tariffs on them. And it is a problem. It is a problem that Chinese elite in the government and industry want to have go away, which is to say they might be willing to do some things to make them go away. The previous administration was prioritizing things like better intellectual property protections for companies operating in China, or easier investor terms in China. These would not be things that help US workers. Those are things that actually are counterproductive. They make it easier to offer So the question is, let's get our policy of what, which certainly is going to focus on things like labor rights and human rights and wages, currency, and not have those tariffs given away without trying to use them to improve the policies.

Ryan: Number eight: issue a de Marche to countries in the UN Commission on International trade laws ISDS Working Group regarding current and future Investor-State Dispute Settlement rules.

Lori: So there's been so much opposition growing against Investor-State Dispute Settlement ISDS, that the law, the corporate law firms, and some of the big oil companies that like to use that system, which empowers individual companies to go before a tribunal of three private lawyers to demand unlimited compensation paid by US taxpayers, from any government for any perceived violation of an investment agreement, or the investor rules in an agreement like NAFTA, just under NAFTA, over $400 million has been paid out and attacks against environmental policy, health policy, etc. So the guys who like that outrageous rigged system, realize they're in trouble. And they went to UNCITRAL, that UN body, which is one of the places where they take these cases, to really try and get off the steam. And the idea was to pretend that they were talking about reforming ISDS to try and distract the opposition. And instead, they decided to make that a place to try and lock in a new form of ISDS. And so the US needs to make clear, a written position that the US is no longer for ISDS and isn't going to join up in that farce.

Ryan: Number nine: Issue a démarche to all nations that now qualify for the African Growth and Opportunity Act or AGOA, or that could qualify, clarifying that the program is not about to be terminated.

Lori: So what this is about is President Trump making threats, including in a meeting with the president of Kenya, that the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which is a policy, it's not a bilateral agreement, it's a policy, where the United States passed a law that says African countries from Sub Saharan Africa, if they meet certain criteria can have duty free access into the US, and basically have terms of trade better than what a lot of other countries might get in the World Trade Organization. And the idea was for it to be a development program that wasn't cash aid, and to help build diversified economies now, Africa, and that policy sunsets in 2025, the current extension, but it's been extended in 10-year chunks, repeatedly five-year chunks a couple of times. It's just it's not controversial. So President Trump was trying to get the president of Kenya to sign up for a free trade agreement where instead of having this access, and you would have to basically have a lot of obligations to US corporations to get the same old access. And it's really important countries in Africa realize that program is not going away. They don't need to make a deal that's bad for their people just to keep what they already have.

Ryan: We're at number 10. This is the final one for the day one. Number 10: Issue an executive order reaffirming that US trade officials are prohibited from promoting tobacco sales, reducing tobacco tariffs, or seeking to undermine the regulation of tobacco products.

Lori: So what that's about is what's called the Doggett Amendment, which was a prohibition from almost 20 years ago, and US trade officials promoting big tobacco. Sadly, during the Obama era, they basically ignored that. And they did a bunch of stuff that was really pro-tobacco in agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership. So the idea is to reaffirm that US trade negotiators aren't going to be pushing deadly tobacco products and other countries in our trade negotiations.

Ryan: You did it!

Lori: So that was that 10th item of what was supposed to be the first-day agenda. Given I couldn't even summarize each of the 10 items in one minute. Obviously, no matter how good an administration they couldn't get all that done in the first day. So first day is kind of a term of art for meaning the most urgent short term things that have to happen. And we just got an overview of all the things to set up a good trade policy going forward. And there's a lot of work to make sure that still happens.

Ryan: And stay tuned for part two where we're going to do the first 100 day top 10 rethinking trade is produced by Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, I would encourage you to visit rethinktrade.org as well as tradewatch.org to educate yourself. You can find out how you can get involved in the work we're doing to fight for fair or equitable trade policies.

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