Recent protests and campaigns in the US have focused on the proposal by India & South Africa at WTO to keep TRIPS in abeyance till the pandemic is vanquished
By Latha Jishnu
Published: Tuesday 09 March 2021
The politics of healthcare that are being played out publicly in Washington, especially in the recent days, reveal little of the true nature of Big Pharma’s covert operations to ensure that its business-as-usual model is not disrupted in the time of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. At the heart of the struggle to ensure that vaccines reach the vulnerable worldwide is the fundamental question of intellectual property rights (IPR) that are blocking life-saving vaccines for billions across the world.
Recent protests and campaigns in the United States have focused on the proposal by India and South Africa at the World Trade Organization (WTO) to keep its Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of IPRs, known as TRIPS, in abeyance till the pandemic is vanquished. TRIPS forces member-states to provide protection from monopoly on any innovation by ensuring IPRs are upheld. Looked at realistically, the India-South Africa proposal was dead in the water from the start, since the most powerful developed nations opposed it.
In recent weeks, top civil society organisations have been appealing to US President Joe Biden to not block the emergency waiver of TRIPS so that vaccines and therapies could be produced in far greater numbers. They were backed by three Congressmen from the Democratic Party. Yes, three. How does this stack up in the battle where billions of dollars are at stake?
The relentless campaign against the waiver by the big boys of the drug industry does not have much merit since it peddles the familiar, tired argument that abrogation of IPRs would kill all innovation. It’s well known that the successful vaccine candidates pharma companies have come up with are all based on critical breakthroughs made by public research laboratories and fast-tracked through generous funding by governments.
But let us look at how the industry has been using its financial muscle to fight this battle. The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the lobbying arm of Big Pharma, led the spending on lobbying Congress through the first three quarters of 2020.
According to health group Patients Over Pharma, Big Pharma spent nearly $50 million on lobbying in the opening months of 2020, which marked the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis. The operation is said to have involved multiple lobbyists who were former members of the Donald Trump administration.
Does that mean just the Republicans are in the pay of the pharma industry, since four top Republican senators made a strong demand to Biden on March 6 to reject the India-South Africa waiver proposal?
It is true that during the Trump regime, the industry relied heavily on Republicans to lead the charge against drug-pricing legislation that could have undermined their business model, but Democrats are also part of its cheerleading group. Don’t forget, Hillary Clinton collected $336,416 in donations from the industry, taking in over a third of the total contributions during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Meanwhile, Pfizer Inc is bullying Latin American nations to change their laws to provide protection for its high-priced vaccine. Remember that Pfizer’s partner BioNTech got $445 million from the German government to develop this vaccine and Trump gave nearly $2 billion to pre-order 100 million doses even before Phase 3 trials had started. To ask what Biden will do is merely a rhetorical question.