President Joe Biden heeded calls from low-income countries to try to relax patents on Covid-19 vaccines so they can make cheaper generic versions. Big Pharma was furious.Transcript at vox.com/todayexplained.Support Today, Explained by making a financial contribution to Vox! bit.ly/givepodcasts Learn
Publish Date: May 07, 2021
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President Joe Biden heeded calls from low-income countries to try to relax patents on Covid-19 vaccines so they can make cheaper generic versions. Big Pharma was furious.Transcript at vox.com/todayexplained.Support Today, Explained by making a financial contribution to Vox! bit.ly/givepodcasts Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
India today reported a world record in new coronavirus cases. The number was 414,188 new cases probably an undercount and at the same time vaccinations in India are down there, the world's biggest vaccine manufacturer. But there's a shortage of shots. Just over 2% of the country is fully vaccinated on the other side of the world. Covid is surging in south America Colombia, Peru Argentina and brazil are all hitting record numbers of cases and none of them have even 10% of their populations fully vaccinated all the while in the United States were blowing past vaccination goals and breaking out the short shorts to head into a sort of maybe normal summer, which helps you understand why people have been clamoring for Western leaders to make their vaccines more accessible to the world. And vaccine patents are seen as one of the biggest barriers. So for months, countries mostly low income ones have said lift the patents and let the generic vaccines flow out of every pharmaceutical factory possible on the planet. Which was why biden's announcement this week was such a big deal. The announcement is that the biden administration has carried out what is essentially a 180 degree turn in U. S. Policy. And it is now going to back a suggestion at the World Trade Organization that there should be a complete waiver for intellectual property rights on Covid vaccines here. And Stacy covered the news for the Financial Times. So this means all these companies that have been working for the last year developing and manufacturing vaccines could be faced with not being able to prosecute anybody who tries to then make a cheap knockoff and sell it elsewhere in the world. Now. Intellectual property is absolutely vital for the pharmaceutical industry. That's how they make their money. They make sure that other people don't copy their ideas as soon as they generate them. So this is a really big deal for some of the biggest farmer companies in the U. S. And elsewhere. Well, let's talk about how we got here because I know this decision has been sort of bandied back and forth all week. Where does this story begin? Where the story begins months ago? Mm hmm. South Africa and India are leading a movement to suspend the World Trade Organization Agreement on Intellectual Property Rights for Covid 19 vaccines, all kinds of covid drugs. Actually, the original suggestion by the two countries with that it would apply to any kind of medicine used to treat or prevent covid. So a huge range of drugs were envisioned in that original proposal. That was immediately opposed. As I think the two countries expected by most of the West by countries that have large international drug makers europe proposed at the U. S. Opposed it plenty of other places did too. They say waving the patents would put off private investors and slow down scientific innovation. Then on the campaign trail, joe biden when asked about it would say that he did support the suggestion that companies should waive their intellectual property rights particularly to covid vaccines. Absolutely, positively. This is the only humane thing in the world to do. People didn't pay that much attention because there was so much else going on during that crazy campaign. But when it became a policy issue in the last few months there has been this week a World Trade Organization meeting and people knew this was up for discussion for a while it was assumed that the US would just stick to their previous position which was by the way not only that they didn't support this suggestion but they didn't even support discussion of it mm But it started to become clearer Catherine tied the U. S. Trade ambassador was having a bunch of meetings with anybody she could think of drug companies uh lobbyists also progressive activists. It was clear that she was thinking this over and so when it got to this week when this meeting was due to take place it seems that we were at a crunch point. Now I actually thought on monday I spoke to dr Tony Fauci who many of your listeners will know as the chief medical advisor friend of the show. Friend of the show. Friend of many shows. That's what we love about. Wait we're not special. So sorry I'm so sorry I'd love to say he was a friend of the F. D. But it turns out he speaks a lot of people as well. But he he actually called me and he said he made out a bunch of reasons why this might not be such a great idea principle of which was he could end up just getting involved in litigation and taking too long to get the vaccines where they're needed. One of the complicating issues of the so called waving the patterns is that by the time you then get set up to get the technology transferred to other countries to be able to do it, you may be going into the end of 2022 the beginning of 2023 at which point a lot of people will have died. So I'm not against transferring technology and I'm agnostic about the trips waiver. So I put down the phone to Tony Patrick on monday thinking, okay, the administration is probably going to stick with the status quo. Um, and then on Tuesday there was a meeting in the White House. Now, Tony Fauci wasn't at that meeting. Catherine tie. The trade ambassador was the person who presented her materials to the president in a few of his foreign policy and domestic policy advisors and said that she did back companies being forced to waive their intellectual property rights as far as covid vaccines go. We're just finding out a little bit more about what happened during that meeting. But from what the White House has been telling me this week, the president always intended to stick to the promise that he made during the campaign to actually force the companies to give up their intellectual property rights on this. Absolutely vital piece of pharmaceutical genius.