Rethinking Trade - Season 1 Episode 39: President Biden Could End the COVID Pandemic at This Week’s UN Summit - Will He?
September 21, 2021
Getting the world vaccinated and ending the pandemic is a political choice: World leaders have the medical, technical and financial capacity. To produce enough vaccines involves three clear steps: getting intellectual property monopoly barriers out of the way through a temporary WTO TRIPS waiver, technology transfer through sharing the recipes, and funding global production so the world is not reliant on a few monopoly sources.
With this year’s United Nations General Assembly now underway and President Biden’s upcoming COVID Summit around the corner, the U.S. has a powerful opportunity to end the pandemic. Unfortunately, the targets for Biden’s COVID summit exclude making a final deal on the TRIPS waiver or any others steps to share vaccine recipes with the world so more shots can be produced.
To discuss all of this, we are joined by longtime HIV and social justice activist Matthew Rose, who leads U.S. policy and advocacy work at Health GAP and has been deeply involved in the fight for the TRIPS waiver.
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Music: Groove Grove by Kevin MacLeod.
Transcribed by Sally King
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. Today, Lori and I are joined by our friend and coalition partner Matthew Rose. Matthew is the director of US policy and advocacy at health Global Access Project or Health GAP, which we'll talk a bit more about later in the episode. As we speak, world leaders are gathering for a largely virtual United Nations General Assembly. As a side event to the Assembly on Wednesday, President Biden is hosting a global COVID-19 summit to quote, identify concrete actions, and set "ambitious targets to end the pandemic." Lori, could you frame the UN meeting for us in the context of the fight to get the world vaccinated, and then we can talk a bit about what to expect from this COVID summit.
So ideally, this UN summit, where heads of state from around the world get together every year should be the place where finally the world comes together, to agree on a concrete plan to end the pandemic. At this moment, there is no plan. And as a political choice. We have the technological the medical, the financial means to end the pandemic. Now, these world leaders need to choose to do so. And unfortunately, the way it looks like the agenda is prepared, which is a lot of speechifying, and the way that Biden's so-called COVID summit has an agenda and targets that largely ignore the core issues undermining global access to vaccines, which is the key step to trying to end the pandemic. I can't say that's a very auspicious prospect, that what should be the meeting to end the pandemic is actually going to deliver the Biden summit is all about sharing existing doses and donating doses. But adding a billion more doses to the pledge of rich countries giving poor countries doses does not fix the 10 billion dose-gap in the supply or distribution that now has less than 2% of people in poor countries, getting vaccines and allows the COVID variants to be brewing around the world wiping out unvaccinated people destroying people's lives and livelihoods. And the agenda, the targets for the Biden summit, in no way take on the corporate monopoly control by Big Pharma entities that is causing vaccine apartheid worldwide. So Matt rose, you are a person who has been a leader in these global access to medicine fights for a very long time. How do you see it?
It's interesting the way you framed it, Lori because I think that what popped out of me first about the summit is there's nothing new here. There is nothing being said or done to get us further along the path. The targets that they put out are not that different from what the WHO has already identified as targets. We've done the pledging thing when we had our meeting, back in June when the G7 got together, and of those 500 million doses that the President was going to donate them, that promise to donate, they have yet to be materialized. And they're at the back of the queue when it comes to doses coming out of the COVAX system. So all we've seen, since the big announcement that we were going to say let's break pharma control. Let's make sure that doses are available back in May, when we said the trips waiver should go forward is a lot of just hoo-ha in action. In a world where millions of people are still suffering from the effects of COVID where we're watching variants continue to rise around the world and continue to wreak havoc, reigniting some of the places where we thought we were doing good. And it leads you to question are we going to actually end this pandemic? Because we've had these meetings before. Why is this different? And so far, what's been put on the table looks like more of the same, which has fundamentally not gotten us to a place of ending a pandemic.
Let's talk specifically about one of those big demands to end the pandemic. That is a solid proposal, one being made by governments and civil society organizations throughout the world, which is the TRIPS waiver. Lori, could you give listeners a quick reminder about what the TRIPS waiver is and where it stands currently. And then Matthew, maybe you could talk a bit about the work being done. Now, to make the waiver a reality.
You bet. I want to also just share with people COVAX, that's the agency that's supposed to take donations and dole them out. And what Matt Rose is pointing out is if you've got a shortage of doses, that kind of an agency, which is way short of even the modest goal of getting 20% of people in developing countries vaccinated just doesn't have the shots because they're just not available. So how do you change that dynamic? So more vaccines, treatments, diagnostic tests for COVID are being made worldwide. So that instead of having very high vaccination rates in a handful of rich countries and the rest of the world screwed, you actually get the whole world vaccinated, you get the whole world tested, you get everyone treated, you save lives, and you end the pandemic. How do you do that? And the thing that 150 countries want and have wanted since a year ago, October 2 of 2020, is a waiver of the WTO rules that require all the WTO countries to guarantee pharmaceutical corporations monopoly controls for many, many years of things like the COVID vaccines. So right now, under these WTO rules in the agreement on trade-related aspects of intellectual property, it's called TRIPS. every country around the world is supposed to let these handful of companies which use enormous billions of government money to create these vaccines control if and when they're made, where they're sold. As a result, shocker, the most effective vaccines, Pfizer, Moderna, are being only largely sold in the rich countries. And most people around the world have nothing. So this waiver of these WTO TRIPS monopoly requirements was proposed a year ago. In May, the Biden administration said they would support it, they have not exerted leadership to get it done. So here we are four months later, it's a total deadlock. And this is what's so disgusting. It's blocked by literally three countries, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland, with Germany leading the crew. If Germany stopped blocking with 150 other countries around the world have stood up and said, this is necessary to deal with this incredible inequity, we must take away the former monopoly so more can be made by everyone so everyone can get it and we're jammed right now. We've got two months before a big WTO summit that starts around Thanksgiving to actually get a final deal done. And it's only going to happen if the US President Biden stands up. But Biden's agenda for this US summit isn't to land the waiver deal or to otherwise force these monopolist Big Pharma companies to transfer the technology needed to make more doses. In fact, the big highlight is announcing they're going to give more us taxpayer money to monopolist Pfizer to buy hundreds of millions of more doses to donate. So instead of actually distributing production and control to people around the world, to control their own destiny, and make sure that for this pandemic, and for the next they have the ability to survive. Instead, we're gonna have taxpayer money going to have the monopolists have more profits to make some doses not enough and ship them around his charity.
One of the most important things in a public health crisis is time, we have squandered over almost a year now, in not giving people what they want. And what they've asked for. This would not cost the United States any new money. This would not hurt the first-world countries who've used 70% of the doses that have been allocated to the world. what it would do is give everybody a fair shake to be able to make their own vaccines, make their own diagnostic tools, make their own treatments available in their countries. And we know that this is what's needed in this kind of emergency time. And we continue to, instead of moving something forward that 150 countries have asked for. We let just three countries, three countries who are well vaccinated, who have good control of the epidemic in their countries who don't have the economic wherewithal to weather lockdowns decide that the rest of the world who is feeling the crashing effects of this delta wave have no choice, no options here. And it's really a question of do we want to have as the United States, the moral authority to say, for the good of the world, we will do the right thing. And in May, it sounded like we were going to get there. But over months of negotiations, what have we gotten? We've gotten the Europeans floating a nonproposal, which essentially exists only to slow down the process, as again, their entire populations get vaccinated, while the people on the other side have to see the horrific things of what's happening in the US x100. Because they have no access to vaccines, there's no protection for them. And we continually sit in this spot of staring down each other when people needlessly die and suffer, because we don't want to exert the authority required to push the waiver through. We know that the US leadership is key on these issues. We know the US has rallied the world before and rallied with the world to fight large global health challenges. Every president in American history, since the Carter administration has had to deal with a global health crisis. We've always taken a central role and we've helped Marshal resources and done it in a productive way. For the most part. I have some quids and asterisk there, but we can get into that later. But we know that what leadership looks like from the US, it looks like our diplomats in Geneva using every trick in their playbook offering things carrots and sticks aligned to get people to move on these questions. And we're just not seeing that this time. And it's almost gobsmacking to see how we got stuck here.
And Matthew, speaking of time, Health GAP grew out of the fight to ensure that all people living with HIV, especially those in the poorest parts of the world have access to life-saving medicines. That was back in the late '90s. Can you talk a bit about what that fight looked like then how it played out over the years and how it ties into the current fight for the trips waiver and getting the word vaccinated against COVID-19?
Absolutely. Health GAP history is born from that fight when we watched triple combination therapy, be accessible to the rich countries and not getting it to our colleagues around the world knowing that the suffering we were seeing here and the transformation that we got from those drugs could also be transformed there. And it's eerily similar in very disturbing ways about what's going on. One of the interesting things in the HIV fight in the 90s in the early aughts is that we got to people who you would never think to be on our side, to come across on our side on this issue. That being George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. I know, I know, you're shocked, too. But this proves that going through the WTO can work. Why because we got Cheney and Bush to rally the world together to have the Doha Declaration, which relax IP rights on antiretrovirals so that we could push them out around the world and has generic manufacturers be able to move into the market. And you saw a massive change in the lives saved from this meaningful work and engagement. And these were staunch, staunch neoconservative Republicans who love free trade above all else. But even they were willing to recognize that trade-related barriers, had a ceiling that had a threshold that they shouldn't cross. And if that if they did cross that something, government had to step up and act. And it's wild to think that we worked with Cheney and Bush to get this done to unlock the blockages and allow this flow. Now was this flowing perfectly everything we wanted? No. But you know, that's what you get when you play with Republicans sometimes. However, it did unblock a number of things that allow us to truly set up an infrastructure that continues to allow new products coming from developed markets into the rest of the world. So you can see, you know, now we're still paying crazy drug prices in the United States because we pay crazy these drug prices in the United States. But you can have the generic version of the exact same drug available in a much more affordable manner to people in developing countries who need that drug. And this was a game-changer because it really allowed us to get treatment where it needed to be. Now, one of the places that pharma got to benefit was that it meant that there was a conference supply of people who needed drugs and had drugs paid for, and we had to create a mechanism to pay for that drug. And, you know, the generic companies at least got to have some of that cash. So pharma still gets to benefit and even in the world now, if the waivers are removed, they still get a little bit of money. It's not a whole free for all sale. But it does change the balance of power. And it allows people to make their own drug in-country and sell it to themselves at rates that they can actually afford, rather than what the United States might pay or you know, say Germany can afford to pay. Furthermore, as we watch this kind of global vaccine hunt happen, we can see that things that we've done in the HIV fight, have taught us that how to make these things work and happen. But it's a matter of do we have the political will to get there? And that's where we've been stuck is can we rally the will of the people to do what we did to do what the republicans did, it's still so strange to say, back in the early 2000s and realizing that you can indeed help people to save themselves. And that I think, was empowering, we basically created a generic market scheme by allowing this to go through. And this spurred innovation and spurred development in India, making them kind of the biological place of the world. So you can see what countries are able to do. Bangladesh is able to do places that can really do something once these barriers are removed, and that the investments that they make in those can have spillover effects for other things and other options. But you've got to get through the big block, that is the waiver and getting people on board with understanding that we can go big because we've done it before. And all your arguments about collapsing the pharmaceutical system are all empirically denied, because there's still a thriving pharmaceutical system in the world, even though people with HIV can now get medication.
I think we'll end it on the note of rallying the world like you just mentioned, Matthew, Lori, maybe you could talk about what listeners can do right now to help when the TRIPS waiver and then the pandemic and then Matthew, maybe you could just tell folks listening how they can support the work Health GAP is doing both in regards to the waiver and the other important areas that you focus on.
The most important thing is to build pressure on the White House to take action to end the pandemic. This is not a technical problem. This is a power problem. We need to elevate our demands for a TRIPS waiver for technology transfer and for funding for global production to get everyone the vaccines they need to end the pandemic. There are two easy things everyone can do right now, go to tradewatch.org, top left corner, you will see a box about this crisis, click, you will see an action alert, sign the petition and then pass it on to your friends and family. Number two, it really matters to call your members of Congress at 202-224-3121. You can call the US Capitol. You just give me your zip code, they will send you to your House member have your house member transferred to your senators, ask your House representative and your two senators to talk to the White House, particularly Jeff Zeints and get a letter written back to you about what they say about what they're going to do to deliver the TRIPS waiver
Ditto all the things Lori said it's super important that we raise the pressure and we make this White House realize that the American voters realize what is being done in their name and decide what we're willing to stand for. We can demand that our government actually shift power and create an equitable way to distribute and help support vaccines getting around the world. We can actually think about how to end this pandemic. The plans are out there. The data is out there. The information is out there. It is a matter of political will. And the best way to rally will is to talk to your friends, your family, your co-workers. Share, share, share share. There will be so much information about the waiver for the next couple of weeks and about what we're doing follow Global Trade Watch, follow Health GAP on Twitter. Go to our website to healthgap.org. We are working hard to continuously pump out new materials and resources that help explain what's going on and what's happening in the fight. But this coming summit will help set the stage for what the world does going forward. We can either decide to let a mediocre, lukewarm, boring agenda continue to drive things where we sit and stare at each other across the room and twiddle our thumbs. Or we can act with the urgency and the swiftness that is required to end a pandemic that has encased our lives for over a year and a half to actually provide and support with the rest of the world, 150 countries has asked of us and to truly transform society in ways that recognize justice, dignity and equity. This is our moment. This is a moment in a world where you might not thought it was gonna come. But here now you can make it happen. Fight to support the waiver, fight for vaccine equity and fight to end the Covid-19 pandemic.
Rethinking Trade is produced by Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch. To learn more you can visit rethinktrade.org. You can also visit tradewatch.org. Stay tuned for more and thank you for listening.