‘A Handful of Billionaire Companies Have Monopoly Control Over Life-Saving Medicines’

Janine Jackson interviewed Lori Wallach about vaccine equity for the June 10, 2022, episode of counterspin. This is a lightly edited transcript.


Janine Jackson: The World Health Organization announced that nearly 15 million people have died as a direct or indirect result of the Covid-19 pandemic. That’s almost three times as many as officially reported. The information, the group said, doesn’t just illustrate the devastating impact of the pandemic, but also “the need for all countries to invest in more resilient health systems that can sustain essential health services during crises, including stronger health information systems.”

Well, that certainly includes tests, treatments and vaccines, and there’s a role there for journalism in appropriately reporting the importance and the availability of these public health tools. In particular, there are Covid vaccines that seem to be effective, yet vast portions of the global population remain unvaccinated. What is standing in the way, put simply?

Our next guest has been working on that question. Lori Wallach has been decoding trade policy for decades. She’s now executive director at Rethink Trade. She joins us by phone. Welcome back to counterspinLori Wallach.

Lori Wallach: Thank you very much.

JJ: We hear night and noon about markets, about supply and demand. If there’s a need, suppliers will rush to fill it, and everybody’s going to be satisfied.

Well, there could hardly be a more obvious need than the need for Covid vaccines. So if you were trying to break down for people why so many people, in particular in the Global South, are still not vaccinated, what’s the deal? How do we explain it?

LW: The market does not work in the face of monopolies. And in the case of these medicines, a handful of now-billionaire pharmaceutical companies have monopoly control over these life-saving medicines.

Lori Wallach

Lori Wallach: “The issue at stake is not taking away someone’s creation or invention. It’s taking away the ability to control how much of it’s being made.”

So, for instance, we know by far the most effective vaccines are the mRNA vaccines, including the one developed using US government money by Moderna. And we know now there are new Moderna billionaires created by the profits of selling that, and Moderna has simply refused to license the information to have more production around the world so a greater volume of that vaccine could be produced.

And part of the obstacle is big pharma got inserted, into so-called free trade agreements, binding obligations on countries to maintain and enforce these monopolies, which are government-created monopoly licenses called patents, and other forms of intellectual property monopoly that literally have made it possible for a few very big companies to control supplies, control production, and have a situation where today less than 20% of people in developing countries are vaccinated.

JJ: I don’t want to overuse the word “perverse,” but it’s hard to see past it in this case. Even folks who believe that, you know, if you build a better mouse trap, you ought to get the profit from that, can see that this is not a system working in a way that it should for the public good.

So I guess I’m asking, what has been the pushback against this? Clearly, folks are aware that this protection of patents is slowing down and harming human life around the globe. And what have been the efforts to push back against it?

LW: I will discuss that, but I want to just say one thing, which is the issue at stake is not taking away someone’s creation or invention. It’s taking away the ability to control how much of it’s being made.
JJ: Yes.

LW: So these companies would get paid; they would get a licensing fee. They just wouldn’t be able to make it such that they can reduce supply and drive up prices. Or, in this instance, they don’t want to share the technological innovation of the mRNA platform, because they figure the next drug, they can also monopolize.

So if the many companies around the Global South that could be making these wonder drugs learn how to do it, the companies like Pfizer and Moderna theorize, then the next drug, if it’s for cancer, if it’s for whatever, they won’t be able to control. It is diabolical.

And so, in the face of that, there’s been a huge push in numerous countries to do three things. One: to get a temporary emergency waiver of the rules in the World Trade Organization that require every WTO signatory country to enforce those corporate pharma monopolies.

Number two: to have government technology transfer. The US government has authority, under statutes like the Defense Production Act—particularly with respect to the Moderna vaccine, which the US 100% paid for to have developed and then paid for all the doses of—the access to the information, the government could require, as a matter of national emergency, be licensed; they could make them do it, even if the WTO waiver weren’t done for worldwide access.

And then number three is sufficient funding, so that, though it is no substitute for countries being able to make their own, enough doses could be bought and shared around the world. And currently, on all three fronts, there’s been total failure.

And this very weekend, the WTO’s fight is coming to a head about whether or not the European Union, the United Kingdom and Switzerland will block the entire rest of the world, block it on behalf of big pharma. The US has taken a fairly constructive position in this, and yet it could be blocked, such that we go forward into another year of pandemic with a situation that means, not just are people going to die needlessly and have their livelihoods destroyed, but new variants are going to spring up. Anyplace around the world there is rampant outbreak of Covid is the place where new variants—it could come back to get people who are vaccinated for the current variants.

It’s shortsighted in every front, to say nothing of immoral.

JJ: Is there a fallacy at the heart of this? Can we ever remove the notion that if manufacturers don’t get exclusive intellectual property rights, that they will never be encouraged to do anything? You’ve already indicated that this is, in fact, public spending that has gone into the creation of some of these things.

But I still feel when you read media coverage, you get the idea that, you know, if we don’t encourage these companies, they won’t do the research. And I just feel that’s like a hardy perennial fallacy that we see again and again in media, in terms of medical research and things like this.

LW: Well, the choice is not between no-return investment, or price-gouging and killing people. There is a happy medium, where of course people who’ve made genius inventions should be rewarded for their creativity and hard work. But having, for instance, the ability in the face of a pandemic to simply control medicines that mean people will live or people will die, the global economy will or will not collapse—this is an emergency circumstance, for which there was to be an emergency waiver.

Again, the companies were going to get paid, so it wasn’t whether or not they would lose all control of their inventions. But once the rich countries that could pay had paid, could people in the poor countries, who were never going to pay the same amount per dose because their governments couldn’t afford it, could they have access at a lower price? Could they have access, because there’d be a larger volume at any price?

In most of the developing world, it has been entirely impossible to get the cutting edge mRNA vaccines that are most effective. And right now with Paxlovid, the treatment that is the difference between Covid being a death sentence and Covid being something that will make you uncomfortable if you’re a high-risk person, or if you’re someone who hasn’t been vaccinated, Pfizer is only licensing production of that medicine in the poorest countries. So if you’re in a middle-income country, you simply can’t get it. It’s simply not available.

That is not a matter of reward or not reward. That is extreme greed, where you could have a reward and have people live. And that is why we need to replace our current IP system to have it more balanced, so that innovation is rewarded but medicine is available at prices that people, particularly in developing countries, can pay.

JJ: Let me just ask you, finally, if you’re talking to journalists about who—you know, they’re going to cover the story, the issue. But there are avenues and questions they might ask that they’ve not been doing, that might shine a more helpful light on this?

LW: I think there’s been a lot of spin about what’s gone on. Here’s the reality: At the World Trade Organization in October 2020, South Africa and India proposed an emergency short-term waiver of all the intellectual property provisions necessary to be able to make these mRNA vaccines.

And it’s not just patents. It’s certain technology transfer of undisclosed information. It’s certain copyright provisions, it’s certain what’s called “industrial design exclusivities,” and it was for the duration, short term, of the pandemic, and it would’ve made an enormous difference in who would’ve lived and who would’ve died .

Newsweek: WTO Cannot Continue as Barrier to COVID-19 Medicines |  opinion

newsweek (6/10/22)

And here we are, almost two years later, and this emergency waiver mechanism has not been usable. And the press hasn’t really covered the whys about this. And, in fact, they keep reporting things that aren’t the case.

For instance, right now, the WTO has shifted from focusing on saving lives to saving its reputation. The director general of the WTO has put forward a rump tax supported only by the European Union, ie, the key blocker of the current needed removal of the IP barriers, and is trying to ramrod that into approval, to announce the WTO is relevant, and is locking countries, big developing countries, that have been having a role in this debate for two years, locking them in the hall. He literally wo n’t let them in the negotiating room.

It’s spinning up a storm of how “We’ve come to a compromise.” In fact, the text that’s now being discussed explicitly is not a waiver and does not get any of the IP barriers out of the way, and wouldn’t put a single more vaccine into access in the developing world.

And a lot of reporters keep calling it a waiver, when there isn’t one, right? Keep calling it a compromise, when there isn’t one, keep pretending that negotiations on the WTO’s IP barriers getting out of the way are still ongoing, when they’re not, and they’re not really holding accountable the pharmaceutical corporations, the European Union or the WTO staff.

Plus, the US has basically, in the last six months, not played a great hand, in that the US position has been any WTO deal can only be about vaccines, not about the treatments. And so the treatments, basically, under any circumstance under the US view being excluded from this potential ability to make more volume, mean that the US strategy, which is treat and test, test and treat, would not be available for most of the world .

And it’s just something that didn’t have to be. So what we see happening around the world is countries basically ready to escalate, and civil society activists as well. If you can’t use the legal procedures, then it’s time for direct action, ideally going around all of these limits, but if necessary to just ignore them. Basically direct action to get the meds made, and let the lawsuits fall later.

JJ: All right, then. We’re going to pick this up again in the future, but we’ll end it here for now.

We’ve been speaking with Lori Wallach. She’s executive director of Rethink Trade, online at RethinkTrade.org. Lori Wallach, thank you so much for joining us this week on counterspin.

LW: Thank you.

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