The WTO Vaccination Charade

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It’s not an accident that the World Trade Organization (WTO) is the site for the battle over the pandemic and the health of the world. Many critics of corporate control of international trade, and of most of everyday life, have been making the case against this organization. In fact, the IMC and the independent media movement came out of organizing against the very same organization and the world view it represents. It’s curious then that one of the few public intellectuals who consistently questions the intellectual property system instituted by the WTO has called this current impasse on ramping up vaccinations around the world a charade. He is Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (cepr.net). He wrote, “The idea that millions of people will needlessly die because our political leaders did not want to jeopardize the profits of the pharmaceutical industry is too horrible to be aired in places like the New York Times, Washington Post, and National Public Radio.”

Baker has a regular column called “Beat the Press,” where he watchdogs the elite press coverage of economic issues. His skepticism of the media is warranted, particularly regarding Big Pharma. Examples of how corporations control discourse abound. He suggests that government-funded research should be open source, and available for use by all. Furthermore, the US does not have to wait for the World Trade Organization to relax its intellectual property and patent restrictions. Is this a Kabuki dance where the Big Pharma-friendly Biden administration, in indicating support for a waiver of intellectual property rights for COVID vaccines, seriously expected action at the international level?

The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980

The very bill that allows for the privatization and the exploitation of publicly funded research done at universities and the National Institute of Health (NIH) has a specific provision that allows the benefits of government-financed research to avoid being stifled by corporate control. That is the Bayh-Dole Act, signed in 1980. It has a very distorting and fraught turn of phrase, a “March in Rights” provision. Likely crafted by lobbyists, this evokes Ronald Reagan’s “man from the gummint” who marches in to try to help.

This section of the bill could probably better have been called oversight and implementation protocols but for the neoliberal bias of the authors. It allows for the government to compel corporations to license their patents. This would be contractual and would benefit the corporations in licensing fees, but could allow for institutions and companies around the world to produce, in this case, mRNA vaccinations.

The Moderna vaccine, whose development was overwhelming funded by government, should be subject to this provision, perhaps starting with sharing the technology with the World Health Organization (WHO) production hub in South Africa. The following key language makes explicit the law’s intent, in stating the triggers for action under the “March in Rights” provision:

  1. Failure to take, within a reasonable time, effective steps to achieve practical application of the subject invention;
  2. To alleviate health or safety needs which are not reasonably satisfied.

If this isn’t enough to allow an authentically humanitarian response internationally, what would be? And of course, by eliminating the proliferation of variants it would lessen suffering here in the US as well. But petitions invoking this provision have been filed in other instances, and unfortunately the “gummint” has never marched in to correct corporate abuse of intellectual property paid for by taxpayers.

There are some other possible implications of this obscure law. It has been used exclusively to privatize profits, ignoring its possible uses for public good. Another provision regarding production in the US might conceivably have prevented the closing of the huge Mylan-Viatris pharmaceutical plant in West Virginia. Legislators and health professionals argue that it actually could be used inside the US to control drug prices. And a plurality of state attorney generals has suggested that the production of the antiviral Remdesivir could have been accomplished under a similar application of the law. This drug has proved therapeutically useful against COVID, particularly in shortening its duration. A General Accounting Office report suggests that Gilead Sciences primarily funded the research for this drug, but who trusts Big Pharma on their figures related to their bottom line? Their cost of doing business includes obscene CEO pay, after all.

Media and Pharma

Behind the lobbyists for the “industry” influencing a compliant media are the think tanks, just as in political and economic sectors. Health is also afflicted by generally well-funded think tanks producing ideological analysis. A case in point is the Pacific Research Institute (PRI), which has funded the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest as well as BigGovHealth.org. The former is publishing somewhat sophisticated articles, but from the right-wing think tank perspective. The latter seems to have failed and has been taken over by a clickbait video service. Its main issues were opposing “socialized medicine” and drug purchases from other countries. Perhaps its depictions of Canadians complaining about their single-payer system didn’t go over well because they lacked examples of medical bankruptcies.

A very peculiar and complicated aspect of media and Big Pharma is the backstory on PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief). It’s not so much the framing of the story but the non-reporting of the real role of the Bush-Cheney administration in combating AIDS in Africa. George W. Bush gets great kudos from many, including African nations who may not know the real story. A long, complicated negotiation at the international level was upended by Vice President Cheney’s intervention six months before the PEPFAR legislation was enacted. There had been a commitment to generic drug production diversified around the world, but the US scuttled the deal at the last minute. The result was that Big Pharma got its “share,” and the program’s effectiveness was diminished in untold ways. One can find a Guardian article about the generic drug negotiation, but there is very little in the elite press or anywhere for that matter.

Of course, there are other factors that contribute to this Orwellian memory hole, such as the US’s exceptional view of itself as the exclusively humanitarian shining City on the Hill, and the DC Beltway’s impulse to find something positive in the Bush-Cheney administration, as opposed to the fiascos of both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

The Way Forward

There are worthy efforts going forward in a variety of sites, including Representative Mark Pocan’s (D-WI) advocacy for a “COVID Defense Act” to direct just over one percent of Pentagon spending towards vaccinating thirty percent of the world’s poorest populations. However, it’s not likely that these efforts will bear any fruit in effectively slowing the spread and further development of the COVID virus in the near term. The Biden administration could lead by using the Bayh-Dole provision to insist that Moderna, Pfizer, etc. license their processes. It could use the Defense Production Act to insure that materials necessary for the production of vaccines could be distributed worldwide through the WHO and its network of NGOs. But it seems to me that the only way for this to happen is a groundswell of public insistence on restraining corporate power and its insatiable avarice.

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