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Big Pharma: There’s No Easy Way Out of the Vaccine Crisis We Created

Corporate America might protest, but the potential of a patent waiver on Covid-19 vaccines is worth celebrating—and fighting for.

Protesters picket outside Pfizer's Manhattan office, demanding equitable global access to vaccines.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

On Wednesday, after months of growing pressure from progressive activists and governments around the world, the Biden administration announced that it would support World Trade Organization–centered efforts to waive intellectual property protections on Covid-19 vaccines. This seemingly small bureaucratic gesture carries an enormous potential impact, as it could help other countries manufacture their own stockpiles of Pfizer’s and Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccines. (What has been demanded is a TRIPS waiver, essentially a removal of intellectual property rights on the underlying vaccine recipe. The exact terms of the waiver will take time to negotiate, leaving the contours of the final deal somewhat uncertain.)

But what should have seemed like unvarnished good news—a tenuous triumph of people over intellectual property—in a time of ongoing global crisis has been spun by many talking heads and industry power players as somehow not in the public interest. (The market reacted by briefly cratering.) They warned: It’ll take too long, American companies will lose money, there will be a loss in innovation, the production process is too complicated for other countries to replicate, we’re giving away U.S. know-how and technology to our foreign adversaries—the criticisms are as plentiful as the undisclosed conflicts of interest from the people spouting them on TV.

“This change in longstanding American policy will not save lives,” Stephen Ubl, the president and CEO of industry lobbying group PhRMA, told Bloomberg. “This decision does nothing to address the real challenges to getting more shots in arms, including last-mile distribution and limited availability of raw materials.”

“We must pursue real public health solutions for the present,” said Dr. Scott Gottlieb, who served as Food and Drug Commissioner under President Trump. A Pfizer board member (his pinned tweet is about the “game change” of Pfizer’s vaccine trials), Gottlieb took a nationalist-corporatist line, tweeting: “The Biden Administration is giving away American IP. China has long wanted to weaken TRIPs. But why isn’t the Biden Administration giving away more of the growing stockpile of U.S. vaccines? Over the next 18 months, U.S. companies will produce more than 12 billion doses.”

The evasive whataboutism of Gottlieb’s argument ignores the obvious: This is an unmitigated Good Thing, one that happens to advance U.S. interests by protecting public health and getting global commerce and travel back in motion. It’s also one of a number of helpful, ethically informed actions the administration could take, including distributing the country’s stockpile of AstraZeneca vaccines abroad. (For the true practitioners of realpolitik, America’s health care diplomacy might also represent a better form of soft power than our typically militarized foreign policy, and it would allow us to compete with China’s and Russia’s own vaccine diplomacy.)

Waiving patent protections on these essential vaccines is beyond overdue—it’s easy to overlook that we’re more than 15 months into a pandemic that should have provoked immediate, emergency reforms in health care policy, from providing free government-provisioned care to making sure that new treatments and vaccines would be shared widely around the world. The pandemic has clarified the public’s understanding of our broken health care infrastructure and the system’s fundamental inequities, but our political leaders, captive to private interests and inherited ideologies about a for-profit health care system, have been reluctant to do what’s needed. That includes promoting human life above pharmaceutical company profits (which remain ample, even in these straitened times). In other words, the warnings that there’s no quick fix to the global vaccine crisis are coming from the people who created the vaccine crisis. These are the same people, like self-appointed public health czar Bill Gates, who have powerfully supported the prevailing corporate-friendly intellectual property regime, leading us far astray from the World Health Organization’s initial utopian-minded strategy of global cooperation and information-sharing.

These thunderingly obvious insights have not stopped big pharma and its fellow travelers from criticizing the Biden administration’s move, which reportedly surprised progressive members of Congress who had lobbied for it. A TRIPS waiver is a bad idea that “will not increase the number of doses we will have available within the next 12 months,” Dr. Ozlem Tureci, a co-founder of BioNTech, which helps produce Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine, told CNN. “It will probably act more toward increasing chaos in production.”

With due respect to the impressive research achievements of Pfizer’s scientists, these criticisms are insufficient, and their market-based policy preferences should be none of our concern. An embrace of volatile market logic and corporate America’s self-serving priorities is a big reason why we’re still fighting the Covid-19 pandemic well into 2021. When the Biden administration announced its support for a waiver, the stock prices of Moderna, Pfizer, and some other pharma companies plummeted before later rebounding. Markets aren’t moral entities, so perhaps it makes sense that shareholders can’t understand the imperative to waive patent protections and spread vaccines as widely as possible. That’s OK. There are some things markets can’t do. Solving the Covid crisis is one of them.