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May 6, 2021, 2:50 p.m. EDT

Will corporate greed prolong the COVID-19 pandemic?

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Joseph E. Stiglitz, and Lori Wallach

NEW YORK (Project Syndicate)—The only way to end the COVID-19 pandemic is to immunize enough people world-wide. The slogan “no one is safe until we are all safe” captures the epidemiological reality we face. Outbreaks anywhere could spawn a SARS-CoV-2 variant that is resistant to vaccines, forcing us all back into some form of lockdown.

Given the emergence of worrisome new mutations in India, Brazil, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere, this is no mere theoretical threat.

Worse, vaccine production is currently nowhere close to delivering the 10 billion to 15 billion doses needed to stop the spread of the virus. By the end of April, only  1.2 billion  doses had been produced world-wide. At this rate, hundreds of millions of people in developing countries will remain unimmunized at least  until 2023 .

It is thus big news that President Joe Biden’s administration has announced it will join the 100 other countries seeking a COVID-19 emergency waiver of the World Trade Organization intellectual-property (IP) rules that have been enabling vaccine monopolization. Timely negotiations of a WTO agreement temporarily removing these barriers would create the legal certainty governments and manufacturers around the world need to scale up production of vaccines, treatments, and diagnostics.

Last fall, former President Donald Trump recruited a handful of rich-country allies to block any such waiver negotiations. But pressure on the Biden administration to reverse this self-defeating blockade  has been growing , garnering the support of 200 Nobel laureates and former heads of state and government (including many prominent neoliberal figures), 110 members of the U.S. House of Representatives,  10  U.S. Senators,  400 U.S. civil-society groups400 European parliamentarians , and many others.

An unnecessary problem

The scarcity of COVID-19 vaccines across the developing world is largely the result of efforts by vaccine manufacturers to maintain their monopoly control and profits. Pfizer /zigman2/quotes/202877789/composite PFE +0.48% and Moderna /zigman2/quotes/205619834/composite MRNA +6.30% , the makers of the extremely effective mRNA vaccines, have refused or  failed to respond  to numerous requests by qualified pharmaceutical manufacturers seeking to produce their vaccines. And  not one vaccine originator  has shared its technologies with poor countries through the World Health Organization’s voluntary COVID-19 Technology Access Pool.

Recent company pledges to give vaccine doses to the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) facility, which will direct them to the most at-risk populations in poorer countries, are no substitute. These promises may assuage drug companies’ guilt, but won’t add meaningfully to the global supply.

As for-profit entities, pharmaceutical corporations are focused primarily on earnings, not global health. Their goal is simple: to maintain as much market power as they can for as long as possible in order to maximize profits. Under these circumstances, it is incumbent on governments to intervene more directly in solving the vaccine supply problem.

A common-sense solution

In recent weeks, legions of pharmaceutical lobbyists have  swarmed  Washington to pressure political leaders to block the WTO waiver. If only the industry were as committed to producing more vaccine doses as it is to producing specious arguments, the supply problem might already have been solved.

Instead, drug companies have been relying on a number of contradictory claims. They insist that a waiver is not needed, because the existing WTO framework is flexible enough to allow for access to technology. They also argue that a waiver would be ineffective, because manufacturers in developing countries lack the wherewithal to produce the vaccine.

And yet, drug companies also imply that a WTO waiver would be  too  effective. What else are we to make of their warnings that it would undermine research incentives, reduce Western companies’ profits, and—when all other claims fail—that it would help China and Russia beat the West geopolitically?

Obviously, a waiver would make a real difference. That is why drug companies are opposing it so vehemently. Moreover, the “market” confirms this thinking, as evidenced by the  sharp decline  in the major vaccine-makers’ share prices just after the Biden administration’s announcement that it will engage in waiver negotiations. With a waiver, more vaccines will come online, prices will fall, and so too will profits.

Breaking news: Vaccine makers lower after U.S. says it supports IP waivers

Still, the industry claims that a waiver would set a terrible precedent, so it is worth considering each of its claims in turn. 

Big Pharma’s big lies

After years of passionate campaigning and millions of deaths in the HIV/AIDS epidemic, WTO countries agreed on the need for  compulsory IP licensing  (when governments allow domestic firms to produce a patented pharmaceutical product without the patent owner’s consent) to ensure access to medicines.

But drug companies never gave up on doing everything possible to undermine this principle. It is partly because of the pharmaceutical industry’s tight-fistedness that we need a waiver in the first place. Had the prevailing pharmaceutical IP regime been more accommodating, the production of vaccines and therapeutics already would have been ramped up.

The argument that developing countries lack the skills to manufacture COVID vaccines based on new technologies is bogus. When U.S. and European vaccine makers have agreed to partnerships with foreign producers, like the Serum Institute of India (the world’s largest vaccine producer) and Aspen Pharmacare in South Africa, these organizations have had no notable manufacturing problems. There are many more firms and organizations around the world with the same potential to help boost the vaccine supply; they just need access to the technology and know-how.

Opinion: For just $25 billion, the U.S. could jump-start a project to quickly vaccinate the entire world against COVID

For its part, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations has identified some  250 companies  that could manufacture vaccines. As South Africa’s delegate at the WTO recently  noted :

“Developing countries have advanced scientific and technical capacities…the shortage of production and supply [of vaccines] is caused by the rights holders themselves who enter into restrictive agreements that serve their own narrow monopolistic purposes putting profits before life.”

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