Rising prescription costs, the opioid crisis and tax breaks — Big Pharma’s history of profit-driven selfishness is easily eclipsed as the COVID-19 pandemic prompts these same companies to delay progress, threatening hopes for international herd immunity.
Intellectual property (IP) standards were formalized on Jan. 1, 1995 under the TRIPS Agreement of the World Trade Organization. As inscribed in Article 27 of the provision, IP protection extends to “all fields of technology,” thereby placing life-saving medicines under the manipulation of pharmaceutical industries.
In effect, Big Pharma assumed absurd power. The monopoly secured under the TRIPS Agreement allowed pharmaceutical companies to inflate medicine prices, subsequently withholding essential medicines from those unable to afford the price. This inhumane capability to deny essential means of survival is one not even permitted to governments on our enemies, yet was so carelessly granted to profit-driven pharmaceutical firms.
By monumentally tweaking IP protections, Article 31 of the 2001 Doha Agreement permitted a patented invention to be compulsorily licensed in the name of public health. Under this amendment, a TRIPS waiver would allow governments to obtain the makeup of medications so that treatments can be replicated at a faster rate and at a lower cost.
A declared pandemic, one with multiple approved vaccines yet limited manufactured supply, would seem to plausibly qualify for a TRIPS waiver. In observing this truth, on Oct. 2, 2020, a coalition led by India and South Africa asked the WTO to override patented COVID-19 vaccines. Regardless of the lives at play, Big Pharma — backed by rich countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom — continued to assert the need for IP protections on vaccines.
The predictable result has been a ceaseless pandemic and an insufficient vaccine supply.
As it stands, wealthy nations and their vaccine hoarding have left rich nations with enough doses to vaccinate their populations more than two times over, while less than 1% of the developing world is vaccinated.
In foreseeing the imminent disregard for emergent nations, COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access — COVAX — was formed to represent the developing world. COVAX’s mission is to provide low and middle-income countries with the means to vaccinate 20% of their population by the end of 2021 from the voluntary contributions of rich countries.
Needless to say, COVAX has remained far from its targets. There are simply too few vaccine manufacturers, with COVAX members at the bottom of the priority list. While COVAX’s aim is commendable, relying on rich nations to reach thresholds far outside of national herd immunity levels will not solve this pandemic.
The way forward requires sharing the knowledge and technologies needed to vaccinate more than just the wealthy. Solving this pandemic means overriding intellectual property protections.
Millions of deaths later and western governments have belatedly begun to diverge from their pattern of protection for the private sector. On May 5, the Biden administration notably announced its intention to support a TRIPS waiver, ushering in unparalleled respect.
Immediately after the United States’ updated stance, pharmaceutical firm’s share prices fell drastically, leaving Big Pharma in a clamber to reverse Biden’s policy. Now, Big Pharma is not simply denouncing the move but actively lobbying against it.
Big Pharma sent a warning letter to numerous United States Members of Congress, irrationally claiming that a TRIPS waiver will “serve as a national security threat” and even “allow China to profit from American innovation.” Similar intimidation campaigns have been executed throughout the EU.
Unlike what pharmaceutical industries are claiming, overriding IP protections will not set a dangerous precedent. On the contrary, invoking a TRIPS waiver would be empowering, symbolizing how publicly funded research can serve as an adequate response to a global health crisis.
Further, the argument that pharmaceutical companies absorb the risk of these vaccines and therefore deserve a monopoly on the findings is outrageous. Rich nations, not pharmaceutical companies, provided the funds to expedite vaccine development and research.
Taxpayers took the risk in these vaccines.
The public’s dollars funded these developments and refusing to invoke a TRIPS waiver is the irrational decision to prioritize private profits above global health.
In reality, Big Pharma’s claims are not rooted in truth but desperation. Big Pharma is scrambling to appease congresspeople, because, as occupants of the private sector, their aim is to make a profit. The simple fact is that pharmaceutical companies were set to make billions in revenue and a TRIPS waiver would undermine those returns.
At present, we can either continue to respond to this pandemic as we have by allowing private individuals to manipulate our safety, or we can release the vaccine components and act collaboratively.
We have the knowledge. There is a solution. Now it is time to pressure these drug giants to do as they claim and protect global health.
Em-J Krigsman is an Opinion Editor for The Daily Cardinal. She is a rising sophomore studying Political Science and Journalism. Do you think a TRIPS waiver should be invoked to produce more vaccines? Send all comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
Em-J is an Opinion Editor for The Daily Cardinal, and is also a member of the Editorial Board.