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U.S. & Other Wealthy Nations Block Effort to Waive Vaccine Patent Rights in Blow to Global South

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The United States and other wealthy members of the World Trade Organization have blocked a push by dozens of developing countries to waive patent rights in an effort to boost production of COVID-19 vaccines for poor nations. The proposal by South Africa and India was supported by hundreds of civil society organizations, including Doctors Without Borders, Oxfam and Amnesty International. Without the waiver, vaccine production will remain in the hands of only a few pharmaceutical companies. “Millions of us are basically going to have to wait for a vaccine, putting global immunity, as well as regional immunity, particularly in Africa, at severe risk,” says South African activist Fatima Hassan, founder and director of Health Justice Initiative. We also speak with Achal Prabhala, coordinator of the AccessIBSA project, which campaigns for access to medicines in India, Brazil and South Africa. He says one of the barriers to spreading vaccine production to other parts of the world has to do with perceptions of scientific expertise. “The entire world — not just the West — is incredulous at the idea that you could have useful science in this pandemic come out of places not in the West,” says Prabhala.

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StoryMay 06, 2021“Monumental Moment”: U.S. Backs Waiving COVID Vaccine Patent Rights After Months of Blocking Talks
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The United States and other wealthy members of the World Trade Organization have blocked a proposal to waive intellectual property rights related to COVID vaccines. South Africa and India had pushed the proposal as part of an attempt to increase the availability of vaccines in poorer countries. The People’s Vaccine Alliance recently said, while rich countries are vaccinating one person every second, the majority of poorer nations have yet to administer a single shot. That’s over a hundred nations. Some nations, including many in Africa, may have to wait years before getting enough vaccines to protect their populations. The World Health Organization has also joined the call for Big Pharma to waive vaccine patent rights.

TEDROS ADHANOM GHEBREYESUS: Many countries with vaccine manufacturing capacity can start producing their own vaccines by waiving intellectual property rights, as provided for in the TRIPS Agreement. Those provisions are there for use in emergencies. If now is not a time to use them, then when? This is unprecedented times. And we believe, and WHO believes, that this is a time to trigger that provision and waive patent rights.

AMY GOODMAN: On Wednesday, Senator Bernie Sanders addressed an online rally organized by a coalition known as the People’s Vaccine ahead of this global day of action that’s happening today.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: I believe that a very good way to demonstrate that American values are back is for the United States to play a leading role in facilitating the production and delivery of these life-saving vaccines and in sharing the innovative technologies for producing them. And that is why today I am sending a letter to the Biden administration to support a proposal to waive vaccine-related intellectual property rights at the World Trade Organization, so that we can rapidly expand supplies of vaccines.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier today, as part of the global day of action, South African protesters rallied outside a Johnson & Johnson facility in Cape Town and Pfizer’s headquarters in Johannesburg.

We’re joined now by two guests, from India and South Africa. Fatima Hassan is a South African human rights lawyer, HIV/AIDS and social justice activist, founder and director of Health Justice Initiative. She served as special adviser to South Africa’s former minister of health. Her recent piece in Foreign Policy, “Don’t Let Drug Companies Create a System of Vaccine Apartheid.” And joining us from Bangalore, India, is Achal Prabhala, coordinator of AccessIBSA, the project which campaigns for access to medicines in India, Brazil and South Africa, recently co-authored a piece in The New York Times headlined “It’s Time to Trust China’s and Russia’s Vaccines.”

We’re going to get to that in a minute, but I want to go to Fatima Hassan. Thanks so much for being with us, because you just finished a major news conference and address in South Africa. Talk about what you said and what this day of action is about. What has the U.S. done?

FATIMA HASSAN: Thank you, Amy, and good to be on the show.

So, it’s one year since the WHO declared that COVID-19 would be a pandemic. And in order to mark that one-year declaration, organizations from around the world, including the People’s Vaccine campaign in South Africa, which has a number of organizations and individuals supporting it, have basically decided to take our demands to the pharmaceutical companies, that at the moment are practicing what we call a pernicious form of vaccine apartheid by refusing to give up their intellectual property rights and refusing to urgently scale up manufacturing capabilities and capacity for the Global South, meaning that millions of us are basically going to have to wait for a vaccine, putting global immunity, as well as regional immunity, particularly in Africa, at severe risk.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Achal, if you could explain — you know, when we discuss problems of vaccine access around the world, we’re speaking principally about Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca. But you wrote a piece in The New York Times, as we mentioned earlier, headlined “It’s Time to Trust China’s and Russia’s Vaccines.” Could you talk about what you believe the significance is, the importance is, of those vaccines for the Global South, and what you think needs to be done?

ACHAL PRABHALA: Thank you, Nermeen.

It’s a situation that we’ve seen of the utter failure of the Western pharmaceutical industry to address the needs of 85% of the world. That’s become very clear now. But we’ve also seen a failure of Western philanthropy. So, the COVAX Facility, which is run by Gavi, recently sent out a shipment to cover 300,000 people in Ghana, or less than 1% of the population of Ghana. And this is while countries like the United Arab Emirates and Israel have vaccinated between 50 and 60% of their populations. The United States and the U.K. have between 20 and 35% of their populations vaccinated. So, the idea that philanthropy from the West would save us is turning out to be a false hope.

In this context, one of the reasons it’s so hard to negotiate with Western pharmaceutical manufacturers is that we seemingly have no alternative. We don’t have generic drugs from India for AIDS that we could use as an alternative in 2000. The problem is, we do have an alternative; we just have to acknowledge that it exists. And the alternative at the moment are vaccines from China and Russia. There are two leading vaccine candidates in China and one in Russia, which have struck supply deals of close to 3 billion doses just for this year. They are the lifeline to middle-income countries all over Latin America, the Arab world, South Asia, in Pakistan and India, where I live, Malaysia and Indonesia. But the problem with them is that we seem to be in a state of denial that they exist, even though they have such rich utility, both in terms of solving an immediate problem in the pandemic, but also serving as a really useful cudgel to negotiate with Western pharmaceutical companies to gain more access to their vaccines.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Achal, but explain. Why do you think it is that there’s such skepticism about the Russia and China vaccines? I mean, there are reports that people within Russia are refusing to take Sputnik V. And also, the response to your piece, your New York Times piece, from China and Russia, as well as from here in the U.S.?

ACHAL PRABHALA: I have to say that, at the start, it should be just said, I think that the entire world — not just the West — is incredulous at the idea that you can have useful science in this pandemic come out of places not in the West. But this is just a fact. And it’s not just a fact in the West. It’s a fact in India. It’s a fact in southern Africa. It’s a fact in Russia and China, as you mentioned. There have been many reports about this.

One of the problems with this is that to overcome these perceptions, we need to have a better access to data and a better grasp of the facts on the ground. The fact that incredibly rigorous regulatory authorities in Turkey and Brazil and Indonesia have approved these vaccines and run trials on them somehow doesn’t seem to matter or break through into the dialogue about global vaccine access.

And this includes activists, unfortunately. We’ve had several conversations. I love the People’s Vaccine campaign. I stand for everything that it does, and I was one of the first signatories to its letter last year, which kicked off the campaign. But I should say that many activists are also blind to this and, I think, prey to the same kind of denial that there are vaccines outside the West that can work.

And it’s not just Russia and China, by the way. So, India has a vaccine which just posted interim efficacy results of 81%. We’re already exporting it to Brazil and to other countries. There are vaccines under development in Cuba, in Thailand, in a range of different countries. And if we created a better enabling infrastructure to validate these vaccines, or even just assess them, then that would go a long way in increasing the confidence in science that comes out of the West and good science that comes out of bad states.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you respond to that, Fatima Hassan?

FATIMA HASSAN: Yeah, great. So, I mean, I think Achal is right. Even the COVAX mechanism doesn’t as yet have any agreement with Sinopharm or Sinovac, as well as Sputnik.

In South Africa, the situation is slightly different. We don’t have a single vaccine registered for widespread population use as yet, because all of the dossiers are still being reviewed. In the case of Sputnik, they’ve finally, only in the last few weeks, submitted their dossier, and that’s currently under review. What we’ve been told is that Sinopharm and Sinovac have not submitted their dossiers and are not willing to share their data. So, particularly in the South African context, with a very stringent regulator, whether it’s Sinopharm, whether it’s Sputnik, whether it’s Johnson & Johnson or AstraZeneca or NIH-Moderna, you know, all of them have to submit their data, and they’re subject to the same review. And so, I think that even though there may be vaccines from Russia and China, the issues that we have as activists around the transparency of all of these companies, around all of their data, around all of the dossiers, still stands.

The second issue, obviously, is that we also need pricing transparency across all of these different companies, because we are getting reports that in different countries which started rolling out some of the Sputnik or Sinopharm or Sinovac or AstraZeneca or Johnson & Johnson, whichever vaccine it may be, based on the authorization that they’ve received, that there’s very little pricing transparency. So the concern, as you know, is that also there’s differential pricing structures within COVAX, but then also within the bilateral. So, I think it’s true to say that there is an overlooking of some of the vaccines that actually come from countries that don’t normally — you know, Western countries don’t normally want to deal with them or don’t normally want to buy their vaccines, but the issues that we have around transparency, around data sharing, around regulatory review and approval, I think, applies to all of them.

In relation to the Chinese vaccines — and I’m just using that to basically cover both Sinopharm and Sinovac — what our government has said, on oath, is that until the data is actually submitted, they’re just basically having preliminary conversations. And in South Africa, that seems to have been brokered through the Chinese Embassy.

I think, you know, because India and South Africa are also part of BRICS, the irony in relation to how we are relying on Western vaccines, or whether we’re relying on the Russian or Chinese vaccines, is that Brazil is the outlier at the moment. It’s opposing the TRIPS waiver that South Africa and India have been leading in Geneva since last year. And so, there’s a number of geopolitical considerations, that are beyond just the efficacy of vaccines, that are actually playing out and are going to influence the final vaccine selections for a number of countries in Africa.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to the head of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers, a lobbying group for Big Pharma. This is Thomas Cueni.

THOMAS CUENI: Everybody who knows about vaccine manufacturing and was suppressing the bottlenecks knew that the IP is not the issue. The bottlenecks are the capacity, the scarcity of raw materials, scarcity of ingredients. And it is about the know-how.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Fatima Hassan, can you respond to Big Pharma?

FATIMA HASSAN: Yeah. So, Big Pharma said this at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis. And, you know, Achal correctly pointed out in the beginning, we were able to ramp up the activism, really challenge a lot of these myths and a lot of these claims from Big Pharma. I mean, we were even sued by the pharmaceutical industry in South Africa.

But I think that where there is a political will, where there is an explicit cooperation to share the vaccine know-how and technology, there certainly is capacity in the Global South to do two things: one, full and finish, but, two, even to do full manufacturing. And this is — you know, when you asked the first question around what the U.S. government could do or what it hasn’t done, you know, a number of activists, in the U.S. and around the world, have said to the Biden administration, “If you step in on some of the vaccines that you’ve actually co-funded and co-developed through the NIH, you could, with a little bit of investment and over the next few months, actually invest in massive scaling-up and expanding production.”

So I think it’s quite disingenuous for Big Pharma — I mean, it’s not unexpected, but it is disingenuous for them to say that intellectual property is actually not the block and is not the obstacle. Right now that is the current largest obstacle. If the patents were to be relaxed, if the intellectual property protections were to be relaxed, and they were to either be done on a voluntary basis or through a compulsory mechanism, then, certainly, we believe that we would be in a different situation in the next few months. I think the shameful thing and the moral question is, had this actually been sorted out and addressed in 2020, I do think that many people in the Global South would have been facing a very different outlook, and we would have been in a very different situation.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Achal, can you talk about the bilateral agreements that many countries in the Global South have reached with Russia and China, and also the development of original vaccines in many countries, including India and Cuba and others, and where those stand?

ACHAL PRABHALA: You know, to follow up from what Fatima was saying, intellectual property is a broad term. It covers patents. It also covers know-how and the actual technology that you use to produce that vaccine. And the pharmaceutical industry is always sort of half-right in saying that, yes, you know, you don’t just need our patents in order to be able to produce this, you also need our technology. But they’re, of course, being completely disingenuous in phrasing it that way.

One of the significant things that the Chinese and Russian manufacturers have done is to share their licensing and their know-how and their technology. They’ve done this with Brazil, so they’re manufacturing there. Sinovac is manufacturing in Brazil, Turkey and Indonesia. Sinopharm has set up a huge unit in the United Arab Emirates that is not only going to supply the region and the country, but also all its allies in the Arab world. The Russian vaccine, Sputnik V, has production agreements with at least five different pharmaceutical companies in India to supply something like 500 million doses this year, as well as agreements with South Korea and agreements with a large number of other places.

So, one of the distinguishing features about them — they’re not angels, right? These are companies, and they’re in it at least not to lose money. But one of the distinguishing features about them is that they seem to be much more flexible to enter into agreements. If they can supply from China or Russia, they will. If they can’t, and the vaccine can be made in the countries they’re striking deals with, they allow that to happen. And that’s actually an incredibly positive step that we could take advantage of.

The problem is that the WHO functions on a weird, mid-20th century axis, where it considers any regulatory system, outside of Europe, Canada and the United States, to be suspect automatically. So, the process of certifying these vaccines, to apply billions in dollars of donor funds to buy them, is incredibly complex. And they’ve been waiting in line for months, despite Western vaccines just sort of breezing through the queue at the WHO. This is a really unfair structural problem that needs to be fixed.

The African Union ordered 300 million doses of the Sputnik vaccine. That’s actually going to cover 20% of the most vulnerable people in all low-income countries in sub-Saharan Africa. And it’s an incredible, incredible step towards creating access to the vaccine and exiting the pandemic for the poorest countries on Earth. But now the organizations like the WHO, the COVAX Facility and Gavi have to recognize that these vaccines exist, that there are more vaccines coming out, and help them to get out into the world rather than hinder them.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both for being with us. Absolutely key points that you are raising on this day of action. Achal Prabhala is the AccessIBSA project in Bangalore, India, of that group. And Fatima Hassan is founder of Health Justice Initiative in Cape Town, South Africa.

That does it for our broadcast. Democracy Now! produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Libby Rainey, María Taracena, Carla Wills, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

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“Monumental Moment”: U.S. Backs Waiving COVID Vaccine Patent Rights After Months of Blocking Talks

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