- Lee Fanginvestigative journalist at The Intercept covering the intersection of money and politics.
Big Pharma has hired an army of lobbyists to pressure U.S. lawmakers to block an effort at the World Trade Organization to loosen intellectual property rules on COVID-19 vaccines, which would allow countries around the world to ramp up production, vaccinate more people and bring the pandemic to an end sooner. Dozens of countries from the Global South, led by India and South Africa, are demanding a temporary waiver on vaccine patents, but rich countries, including the U.S. under both the Trump and Biden administrations, have opposed the move. Lee Fang, investigative journalist at The Intercept, says there is a “glut” of vaccines going to wealthy countries while much of the rest of the world is left waiting. “These initiatives that are based on voluntary agreements with the pharmaceutical companies have not worked,” he says. Fang also discusses his reporting on the Biden’s administration’s ties to the vaccine makers: White House adviser Anita Dunn is co-founder of the consulting firm SKDK, which works closely with Pfizer; Biden’s domestic policy adviser, Susan Rice, holds up to $5 million in Johnson & Johnson shares; and White House science adviser Eric Lander holds up to $1 million in shares of BioNTech, which co-developed Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman. You can watch, listen and read transcripts using our iOS and Android apps. Download them for free from the Apple App Store or Google Play Store today.
With India recording more than 10,000 deaths and a million new coronavirus cases over the past three days, the United States is facing increasing criticism for its refusal to back the lifting of patent rights on COVID vaccines. The World Trade Organization is holding key talks on the issue on May 5th.
For months, India and South Africa have led an effort for a temporary waiver of WTO patent protections, which would allow private and public facilities around the world to mass-produce vaccines and related patent-protected items like syringes and personal protective equipment.
But the United States, under both Presidents Trump and Biden, along with a handful of wealthy countries, have been blocking what’s known as the TRIPS waiver. That stands for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights. On Sunday, Biden’s Chief of Staff Ron Klain appeared on CBS’s Face the Nation. He was asked by John Dickerson about Indian Prime Minister Narendra’s Modi’s call to lift the patent rights.
JOHN DICKERSON: But, quickly, the prime minister asked the president to lift it. Yes or no, will he? Or call for lifting.
RON KLAIN: Our U.S. trade representative, Katherine Tai, is going to the WTO next week to start talks on how we can get this vaccine more widely distributed, more widely licensed, more widely shared. We’re going to have more to say about that in the days to come.
AMY GOODMAN: Over the weekend, protesters staged a die-in outside the home of Senator Chris Coons, a close ally of Biden, the senator from Delaware, for opposing the patent waiver.
PROTESTER: People who will die if they do not get access to the vaccine. We have the knowledge. We should be giving it to them.
AMY GOODMAN: There were also protests recently at the Gates Foundation in Seattle, at the shareholders meetings of Pfizer and Moderna in Boston and other cities.
We’re joined now by Lee Fang, reporter at The Intercept. He has been reporting extensively on the Biden administration’s close ties to COVID vaccine makers and to Big Pharma’s lobbying efforts to keep their patent rights. Lee, thanks so much for joining us again.
Why don’t you talk about the extent of the problem and why the U.S. is so central to getting vaccines out to the world, and why it is being so fiercely criticized in the developing world for standing in the way of Africa, Asia, Latin America getting vaccines?
LEE FANG: Amy, thank you so much for having me.
The Trump administration, through Operation Warp Speed, provided $18 billion for the research and development of these vaccines. The largest vaccine makers rely on patents and other inventions owned and created by the U.S. government. Nonetheless, they control monopoly rights through intellectual property of these vaccines, and they set the price. They control the capacity, the production, which partners to work with, and to whom they sell these vaccines. And, of course, they prioritize the wealthy nations of the world — the United States, Canada, parts of Europe, Japan. They’ve gobbled up the available supplies.
Something like 1% of the vaccines that are being produced are going to the Global South, to the developing world. There’s a glut of vaccines going to these wealthier nations. Meanwhile, we’re seeing increasing pandemics, spikes of the virus throughout Latin America, through India and other parts of the world. And we just simply have a capacity issue. We’re not getting vaccines out fast enough to poor nations, to low-income countries.
To give you kind of like a picture of the disparity here, the state of Florida has received more vaccine than the entire continent of Africa through COVAX, which is the Bill Gates, U.S. government, WHO initiative to supply the developing world. So, these initiatives, that are based on voluntary agreements with the pharmaceutical companies, have not worked. Meanwhile, wealthy nations, the pharmaceutical industry have blocked efforts to allow these waivers that would expedite the production of generic vaccines so more factories can be retrofitted, so there could be more competition, so we could scale up supply of the vaccine for the developing world.
AMY GOODMAN: I’d like to turn to billionaire Microsoft founder, CEO Bill Gates, who has devoted much of his philanthropic work to global health issues. During an interview with Sky News earlier this year, he was asked directly whether it would be helpful to share vaccine technology. He said no.
BILL GATES: There’s only so many vaccine factories in the world, and people are very serious about the safety of vaccines. And so, moving something that had never been done, moving a vaccine from, say, a J&J factory into a factory in India, that, it’s novel. It’s only because of our grants and our expertise that can happen at all. The thing that’s holding things back in this case is not intellectual property. There’s not like some idle vaccine factory with regulatory approval that makes magically safe vaccines. You know, you’ve got to do the trials on these things, and every manufacturing process has to be looked at in a very careful way.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Gates. Can you respond?
LEE FANG: Well, Bill Gates is just simply wrong. There are idle factories around the world. We’ve reported on some of them. We’ve talked to factory owners in Canada. Reportedly, there are other factory owners in Bangladesh, India and across the world that stand ready to make generic vaccines. But Bill Gates is at the forefront of this effort to supply the developing world. The U.S. government has provided $4 billion to this initiative, COVAX, that’s founded by a group funded by Bill Gates and associated with his foundation. And Bill Gates has an ideological commitment to strong IP rights. It’s how he built his fortune at Microsoft.
But the big question here is: How do we scale up generic production? You know, on one hand, you have folks like Bill Gates and the pharmaceutical industry that are fighting this waiver, fighting the effort to suspend enforcement of IP rights, saying they won’t allow it. But on the other hand, they say that even if it’s lifted, nothing will happen. Well, you can’t have both ways here.
What needs to be done, and what many activists are calling for, is not only lifting IP enforcement, allowing this TRIPS waiver, but pushing the pharmaceutical industry, pushing the experts involved, to go out and teach the methods to make sure we do have safe methods for producing these vaccines, to retrofit these factories, because time is of the essence. This could have been done last year. But we’re losing time, and we need to scale up factories to produce more generic vaccines.
AMY GOODMAN: Lee, can you talk about your reporting on the Biden administration’s ties to the vaccine makers? You’ve got White House adviser Anita Dunn, co-founder of the consulting firm SKDK, which works closely with Pfizer. Biden’s domestic policy adviser, Susan Rice, holds up to $5 million in Johnson & Johnson. White House science adviser Eric Lander holds up to a million dollars in shares of BioNTech, which co-developed Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine. Then there’s the Albright Group, that many in Biden’s inner circle come from and who she and that group represents.
LEE FANG: That’s right. You know, the pharmaceutical industry is one of the biggest spenders on lobbying in Washington. And there are many conflicts of interest throughout the Biden administration. You just named several of them. The fact that the number three, four undersecretaries of the State Department were at a consulting firm, Albright Stonebridge Group, that represented Pfizer, that Anita Dunn — you know, she’s not someone who’s mentioned a lot in the media recently, but she’s one of the closest advisers to the Biden administration. She was the de facto campaign manager for his presidential campaign. Her consulting firm represents Pfizer, engages in a lot of the PR and advertising for that firm.
These are serious conflicts of interest, and they deserve some scrutiny, given the fact that Pfizer is looking at this product, this vaccine, as its massive moneymaker. One estimate shows that Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine, under even the kind of negotiated prices that are deeply discounted this year for U.S. consumers, that will bring in something like $15 billion a year, making it one of the highest-grossing pharmaceutical products of all time. And they’re already talking about raising prices. So, Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, they have so much money at stake. They’re leaning on lobbyists, they’re leaning on former Democratic aides and on potentially some of these folks who they have ties with in the White House, to push back on any effort to allow a generic vaccine.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Lee, you even mentioned that Hollywood is joining in against waivers for intellectual property.
LEE FANG: That’s right. One of the aspects of the TRIPS waiver that’s been requested by India and South Africa is a temporary suspension of copyright related to the pandemic. And, you know, that comes down to allowing a lot of countries that have very stringent copyright enforcement — in many countries, you can’t use AI to research copyrighted material.
AMY GOODMAN: We have 10 seconds.
LEE FANG: OK. Well, Hollywood has always taken a maximalist position on copyright enforcement, and so they’ve even joined the pharmaceutical industry in fighting this waiver.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to continue to investigate this. Lee Fang, investigative journalist at The Intercept. We will link to your articles on this subject.
That does it for our broadcast. I’m Amy Goodman. Stay safe. Wear a mask.