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No One Is Safe Until Everyone Is Safe: Oxfam on Vaccine Equity & Taking On Moderna

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Oxfam America has accused Moderna of misleading its investors about an ongoing dispute over whether it needs to share vaccine patent rights with the U.S. government. Oxfam filed a shareholders complaint against Moderna with the Securities and Exchange Commission over the company’s resistance to recognizing the role played by three scientists with the National Institutes of Health in developing the vaccine. We speak with Robbie Silverman, senior corporate advocacy manager at Oxfam America, who says the federal government owns a right to license the vaccine to manufacturers. “It is simply not sufficient just to vaccinate the U.S. or just to vaccinate rich countries, because the virus knows no national boundaries,” says Silverman, who claims Moderna is “essentially doing almost nothing to vaccinate low-income countries, and that has negative impacts for all of us.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show looking at the pandemic and the fight for vaccine equity. New research shows the European Union, the United States and the U.K. have received more COVID vaccines in the past six weeks than the entire continent of Africa, of African countries, has received over the past year. The research was conducted by the People’s Vaccine Alliance.

This comes as the world is confronting a surge in new cases linked to the highly contagious Omicron variant. Public health advocates have long warned the world will continue to face new and potentially more dangerous variants if major parts of the world remain largely unvaccinated. Yet, on Wednesday, President Biden was asked about the new variant by ABC’s David Muir.

DAVID MUIR: The vice president said in recent days that you didn’t see Delta coming, you didn’t see Omicron coming. How did you get it wrong?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: How did we get it wrong? Nobody saw it coming. Nobody in the whole world. Who saw it coming?

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to look at the fight to force Moderna to share its vaccine technology to help end the pandemic. Oxfam America recently filed a shareholder complaint with the Securities and Exchange Commission against Moderna. Oxfam, which is a Moderna shareholder, has accused the company of misleading investors about an ongoing dispute over whether it needs to share vaccine patents with the U.S. government. The National Institutes of Health says three government scientists played a major role in developing Moderna’s vaccine, but their names were omitted from the patent application.

We’re joined now by Robbie Silverman. He’s the senior corporate advocacy manager at Oxfam America.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Robbie. Why don’t you start off by explaining just what this shareholder complaint is?

ROBBIE SILVERMAN: Sure, and great to be with you, Amy.

So, Oxfam is a shareholder in Moderna. We own shares in all the major U.S. vaccine manufacturers, and we monitor very closely the risks that these companies are facing by not doing more to vaccinate the world equally.

And in Moderna’s case, Moderna as a company really would not exist absent the support from the U.S. government. First, Moderna received $2.5 billion in U.S. taxpayer funds for research and development for its vaccine recipe. And, as you noted, Moderna scientists co-created the vaccine along with U.S. government scientists from the National Institutes of Health. However, when Moderna filed its patent applications, it deliberately excluded those U.S. government scientists. And, what’s more, it did not fully reveal that for a year it was engaged in an active dispute with the U.S. government over who actually created the vaccine. It buried that information from investors, like Oxfam.

And so we filed a complaint with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the SEC, saying that Moderna was not fully transparent about its dispute with the U.S. government. And this really goes to the heart of vaccine access, because if the U.S. government did in fact co-create the vaccine alongside Moderna, that gives the U.S. government increased leverage, increased ability to force Moderna to share its technology, to open up access and manufacture more doses that we so desperately need.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about this issue, because if the U.S. government made this possible, why they don’t have the formula, which apparently was part of the agreement?

ROBBIE SILVERMAN: That’s exactly right. So, what happened is that as soon as the pandemic hit, scientists from the NIH and scientists from Moderna collaborated to develop the recipe behind Moderna’s vaccine. And since then, you know, Moderna has continued to manufacture doses in cell doses, but it has prioritized selling only to rich countries. Up until basically the fall of this year, Moderna had not provided a single dose to any low-income country all across the world. And even now, when it has pledged to do more, most of the doses that it has pledged to low-income countries will not arrive until 2022.

And as we know, the virus continues to rage. Variants continue to emerge. And that threatens global public health, including here in the United States. And so, Moderna as a company must do more to share its vaccine, and the U.S. government, because it does have such a stake in the Moderna vaccine, needs to do more on its part to compel Moderna to share its technology and share doses with the rest of the world.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to Moderna’s chair and co-founder, Noubar Afeyan, who recently appeared on CNN with Fareed Zakaria. He was questioned by him about patents.

FAREED ZAKARIA: Let me ask you about this. A lot of people, or some people, are saying you guys should be giving this technology away, waiving all your intellectual patents. Explain what Moderna’s position on this is. As I understand it, you are willing to say you will not enforce patents as long as COVID is around.

NOUBAR AFEYAN: Well, Fareed, the first time we spoke was around the time a year ago when we voluntarily pledged — the only company to have done that — voluntarily pledged not to enforce our patents against anybody who uses our patents to make a vaccine against the pandemic. At that time, there had been no proof that the vaccine will work, but we did that because we thought it’s the right thing to do from a vaccine access standpoint. We believe that that has enabled others to make mRNA vaccines. And if others do that even further, that’s great.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Robbie Silverman of Oxfam America, can you explain what he’s saying?

ROBBIE SILVERMAN: Yes. So, what he is saying is that Moderna agreed not to enforce its patents. But what Moderna has not agreed to do is actively share its technology. And there’s a big difference there.

And to take one example, right now the World Health Organization is trying to stand up a new mRNA manufacturing facility in South Africa to produce doses for the African continent, which, as you know, has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the entire world. And the WHO approached Moderna and said, “Moderna, will you collaborate with us? Will you share your technology so that we can produce doses as quickly as possible?” And Moderna said no. And as a result, the WHO says that it will take twice as long to stand up this new manufacturing facility. And meanwhile, the virus is going to continue to rage, thousands will fall ill, and many will die, because Moderna isn’t actively sharing its technology.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain exactly what your shareholder complaint can do.

ROBBIE SILVERMAN: So, we are taking a two-pronged approach right now as shareholders of Moderna. First, we’re calling on the SEC to investigate Moderna for not being fully transparent about its patent dispute with the U.S. government. And we urge the SEC to undertake a full investigation and take enforcement action if in fact Moderna was not fully transparent, as we believe, with its own investors and the public.

But more than that, we’ve also filed a shareholder resolution with Moderna that calls on the company to report on the feasibility of transferring its technology to low- and middle-income countries, so we can fully leverage the world’s manufacturing capacity to produce as many doses as possible.

And we think that Moderna’s failure to do more to promote vaccine equity, first, is harming the company’s own reputation, but, second, is harming the entire global economy, because many studies, from the IMF, the OECD, the International Chamber of Commerce, have said that failing to vaccinate the world equally is costing the globe trillions of dollars in economic damage. And we see the results of that all around us — you know, entire economies in Europe shutting down because of new variants, factories in Malaysia and Vietnam closing, supply chains snarled. And so, Moderna’s failure to do more to promote vaccine equity is harming its own reputation but is also harming the global economy in the interests of corporate investors writ large. And so we think it’s incumbent on Moderna to do much more.

AMY GOODMAN: The eight top Pfizer and Moderna shareholders — we learned this just in the past few weeks — made over $10 billion when their stock holdings skyrocketed after the discovery of Omicron?

ROBBIE SILVERMAN: It is, frankly, obscene. Oxfam did research, and we calculated that the three mRNA vaccine producers — Moderna, Pfizer and BioNTech, which owns the recipe behind Pfizer’s vaccine — are earning more than $1,000 in profit every single second. And so the pandemic is doing incredibly well for these companies. These companies are profiting directly off the pandemic. And as you know, they are minting new billionaires left and right, because these companies are prioritizing selling doses to rich countries at inflated prices. And we’re now — you know, we now know we need at least three doses. There are some countries that are now administering four doses of the mRNA vaccines, while essentially doing almost nothing to vaccinate low-income countries.

And that has negative impacts for all of us, because one of the things that we’ve learned is that many of the other vaccines that are out there — Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca, the Chinese vaccines, that rely on a different technology — are simply not effective against the Omicron variant. And as a result, we need many, many more mRNA vaccine doses than we currently have. And these companies are very happy to keep selling to rich countries while new variants emerge, that ultimately would be good for business. As you said, their stocks skyrocketed.

AMY GOODMAN: And these 120 factories around the world that are ready to make the vaccine, Moderna making it sound like, “Well, we won’t sue any company that makes it,” but they don’t share the formula, which is essential.

ROBBIE SILVERMAN: That’s exactly right. And you also now have a proposal by more than a hundred countries around the world, led by South Africa and India, with the World Trade Organization, basically saying, “Hey, give us the recipe. Give us the technical know-how. We will manufacture our own doses for our own citizens.” And as you note, there are facilities the world over that stand at the ready to produce these doses. And Big Pharma and rich countries are blocking that proposal by more than a hundred countries around the world.

You know, they are saying, “This donation-based model, this charity-based model to end the pandemic, where rich countries essentially give leftover doses to poorer countries, that’s not going to get us out of the pandemic. That is not a sustainable solution. What we, as low- and middle-income countries, want is the ability to manufacture our own doses for our own citizens.” And, unfortunately, Big Pharma companies, who are putting profit before public health, and rich countries, that have hoarded vaccine doses for their own citizens, are blocking that proposal.

And, ultimately, it is self-defeating, because the longer the world remains unvaccinated, the more new variants we’re going to have, and the more threats to public health we’re going to have, even in rich countries like the United States and Europe.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s go back to what President Biden said in that interview with ABC News.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: How did we get it wrong? Nobody saw it coming. Nobody in the whole world. Who saw it coming?

AMY GOODMAN: “Who saw it coming?” For the last year we’ve been interviewing one world health expert after another. Robbie Silverman?

ROBBIE SILVERMAN: That’s exactly right. And this was incredibly foreseeable. It’s actually tragic how foreseeable this was. Since the start of the pandemic, we have been saying no one is safe until everyone is safe. And many officials in the Biden administration have said the same thing, because they recognized that the longer the world remains unvaccinated, the more the virus will mutate, the more new variants, like Omicron, will emerge, that are potentially more easily transmissible, and that will threaten entire global public health.

It is simply not sufficient just to vaccinate the U.S. or just to vaccinate rich countries, because the virus knows no national boundaries. And it will continue to recirculate and come back and threaten our own health here in the United States, as we’re seeing, you know, with hospitals filling up, thousands of people infected every day. It is truly tragic that many public health activists and advocates saw this coming, saw that new variants would emerge if we did not vaccinate the world, and now we’re living in this reality where, even with 70% vaccination rates, our own public health is threatened because of the emergence of new variants.

AMY GOODMAN: Robbie Silverman, I want to thank you for being with us, senior corporate advocacy manager at Oxfam America.

In 30 seconds, we’ll look at how the Koch network hijacked the war on COVID.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Florence Price’s Symphony No.1 in E Minor–Finale played by The Philadelphia Orchestra. Price was the first Black composer to have her work played by a major American orchestra in the 1930s.

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