As the inequities of vaccine distribution worldwide grow, a group of more than 50 developing countries led by India and South Africa is pushing the World Trade Organization to dissolve all international intellectual property protections for pandemic-related products, which would include vaccine research patents, manufacturing designs and technological know-how. The Trump administration rejected the proposal to waive the agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) for the pandemic when it was introduced in October.
Now, hundreds of nongovernmental organizations and dozens of Democratic lawmakers are pushing the Biden administration to support the proposal. But many warn the move would result in the United States handing over a generation of advanced research — much of it funded by the U.S. taxpayer — to our country’s greatest competitors, above all China.
In Congress, there’s justified frustration with the United States’ failure to respond to China’s robust vaccine diplomacy, in which Beijing has conditioned vaccine offers to pandemic-stricken countries on their ignoring security concerns over Chinese telecom companies or abandoning diplomatic recognition of Taiwan. There’s also a lot of anger at Big Pharma among progressives for profiting from the pandemic.
“We are in a race against time, and unfortunately Big Pharma is standing in the way of speedily addressing this problem,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who supports the effort to waive intellectual property protections, told me in an interview. “I think the real security issue is that while the United States balks in making sure that we help ourselves, that these adversaries will just jump right in.”
Schakowsky argued that alternative measures for helping poor countries manufacture vaccines are simply not moving fast enough to save lives and that the United States has a duty to respond. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) personally conveyed her support for the waiver to President Biden, Schakowsky said.
But Big Pharma is just one piece of the puzzle. Countries such as India and South Africa have been trying to weaken WTO intellectual property protections for decades. The mRNA technology that underpins the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines was funded initially by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and has national security implications.
Inside the Biden administration, the National Security Council has already convened several meetings on the issue. The waiver is supported by many global health officials in the White House and at the U.S. Agency for International Development, who believe the United States’ international reputation is suffering from its perceived “America First” vaccine strategy.
On Wednesday, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai spoke with WTO Director General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala about the waiver issue. USTR is convening its own interagency meetings on the issue, which many see as a move to reassert its jurisdiction over WTO matters.
If and when this does get to Biden’s desk, he will also hear from national security officials who believe that waiving TRIPS would result in the forced transfer of national security-sensitive technology to China, a country that strives to dominate the biotechnology field as part of its Made in China 2025 strategy. Once countries such as China have this technology, they will apply their mercantilist industrial models to ensure their companies dominate these strategically important industries, potentially erasing thousands of U.S. jobs.
“We would be delivering a competitive advantage to countries that are increasingly viewed as our adversaries, at taxpayer expense, when there are other ways of doing this,” said Mark Cohen, senior fellow at the University of California at Berkeley Law School.
A preferable approach would be to build more vaccine-manufacturing capacity in the United States and then give those vaccines to countries in need, said Cohen. The U.S. pharmaceutical industry would surely benefit, but that’s preferable to being dependent on other countries when the next pandemic hits.
“If there’s anything that the pandemic has taught us, it’s that we need to have a robust supply chain, for ourselves and for the world generally,” Cohen said.
What’s more, it’s not clear that waiving the TRIPS agreement for the pandemic would work in the first place. Bill Gates and others involved in the current vaccine distribution scheme have argued that it would not result in more vaccines, pointing out that licensing agreements are already successfully facilitating cooperation between patent-holding vaccine-makers and foreign manufacturers. Critics respond that such cooperation is still failing to meet the urgent needs in the developing world.
Vaccine equity is a real problem, but waiving intellectual property rights is not the solution. If the current system is not getting shots into the arms of people in poor countries, we must fix that for their sake and ours. But the pandemic and our responses to it have geopolitical implications, whether we like it or not. That means helping the world and thinking about our strategic interests at the same time.