The global COVID-19 pandemic is far from over, as the current human catastrophe in India reminds us, a nation of 1.3 billion people where just 2 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated against COVID and more than 400,000 new cases a day are being reported with some 3,000 deaths. Now enter Moderna, with its approved COVID-19 vaccine, pledging to supply the World Health Organization (WHO) with 34 million doses of its vaccine in the fourth quarter of 2021 at its “lowest tiered price.”
As Guardian columnist Nesrine Malik has recently observed about India’s large population “trapped and condemned” to live with COVID, “The world needs a global logistical exercise, a sort of Marshall plan that would provide financial support, expert manpower, and medical technology …By the time the real numbers of deaths and infections become clear, it will be far too late for many people.” 1
The United States has had a reputation since World War II of stepping forward to help under these kinds of circumstances, but where are we now? We’re embroiled in yet another battle by Big PhRMA over patent rights to its vaccines. This is a far cry from the early 1950s, when the first effective vaccine for polio was developed here in the U. S. by Dr. Jonas Salk, with some support from the March of Dimes. When released to the public in 1955, he refused to patent his invention. Questioned by Edward R. Murrow about who would own the patent, he replied: “The American people, I guess. Could you patent the sun?” 2
Less known about Jonas Salk is that he spent much of the last decades of his life developing an evolutionary philosophy that could serve as the basis for resolving some of the fundamental problems of humankind. This work has carried on through the 2018 book, A New Reality: Human Evolution for a Sustainable Future, written with his son Jonathan, a psychiatrist at UCLA School of Medicine. Here is one relevant quote from that book that applies to this battle today:
Profit, wealth, and unremitting growth often proceeded with little regard to the well-being of individual human beings or the conservation of natural resources. Our task in the future will be to reconcile human value with material value in a way that supports the overall quality of life for all human beings. 3
Big PhRMA has long claimed that its prices are needed to cover the costs of research and development, but it greatly exaggerates its own costs. This claim does not pass scrutiny—the federal government through the National Institutes of Health bear most of the costs, while much of industry’s costs are more marketing than rigorous research. Moreover, drug companies often tend to avoid developing needed vaccines, as less lucrative public health needs, to the point that we have had shortages for such essential products as immune globulin and the vaccine for shingles. As Zain Rizvi, law and policy research in Public Citizen’s Access to Medicines program, has said:
The coronavirus outbreak should be a wake-up call. We cannot depend on monopolies to deliver the medicines we need. 4
What did the Trump administration do on this front? It rejected help from the World Health Organization (WHO) towards needed testing kits and development of a COVID vaccine, then paying nothing to it for a global effort to develop and deploy COVID vaccines. U. S. vaccine companies were wary of handing over their trade secrets to any WHO-designated manufacturer. Several months later, Trump declared that the U. S would not participate in a global effort to develop, manufacture, and equitably distribute a coronavirus vaccine.
Corporate interests were thriving under Trump’s hands-off approach even as Operation Warp Speed was independently proceeding ahead, with large federal subsidies, to build a vaccine market with no price controls. Unsurprisingly, serious financial conflicts of interest soon came to light involving $10 million in stock options for the former PhRMA executive appointed to lead Operation Warp Speed. 5 As profiteering continues by vaccine manufacturers that have received large amounts of federal funding, we learn that Pfizer expects global sales of its COVID-19 vaccine to reach $26 billion in 2021, which would make it the biggest-selling pharmaceutical product in the world. 6
Now, under the Biden administration, the U. S. is fortunately returning to a participative and leadership role by rejoining the WHO. However, the supplies of COVID-19 vaccines are way below international needs at this time as the situation worsens due to trade restrictions. Just four countries produce both the key vaccine ingredients as well as any type of final vaccine to the entire world. Recently a group of former heads of government, including former U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, urged the U. S. and others to agree to a temporary suspension of COVID-19 vaccine patents and to pressure drug makers to share technology and know-how in order to turbocharge global manufacturing of the vaccines. To date, the U. S. has opposed such a suspension. 7
Despite the critical shortage and need, vaccine nationalism, together with an aggressive stance of some countries, stand in the way of timely and equitable distribution of essential vaccines. The main reason for countries not sharing their secrets and expertise is because these countries don’t want to give up their monopolies. A program launched by the WHO last spring, the COVID-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP), to train dozens of drug manufacturers in Latin America, Asia and Africa to increase worldwide production of vaccines once they came on the market, has gone nowhere since then.
The Biden administration is at least open to considering a temporary suspension of COVID-19 vaccine patent rights to meet this global crisis. It will participate in forthcoming trade talks with the World Trade Organization on ways to distribute these vaccines more widely around the world. The world is watching to see if the U. S. can address this public health crisis in keeping with its past history.
1. Conley, J. Moderna offer of vaccines for a global south ‘not a substitute for patent justice,’ advocates say. Common Dreams, May 3, 2021.
2. Smith, J. Patenting the Sun: Polio and the Salk vaccine. New York. William Morrow, 1990, p. 159.
3. Salk, J, Salk, J. A New Reality: Human Evolution for a Sustainable Future. Stratford, CT. City Point Press, 2018, p. 174.
4. Feng, R. A new epidemic tests the limits of PhRMA’s monopoly model. Public Citizen News, March/April 2020, p. 4.
5. Corcoran, A. COVID-19 vaccine program has $10 million in stock options for a company getting federal funding. Business Insider, May 16, 2020.
6. Rowland, C. Pfizer coronavirus vaccine revenue is projected to hit $26 billion in 2021 with production surge. The Washington Post, May 4, 2021.
7. Douglas, J, Kim, K. Vaccine supply chain fuels world output. Wall Street Journal, May 1-2, 2021: A 6.