The Biden administration’s official support for a global waiver on patent protections for COVID-19 vaccines has irked allies in the pharmaceutical industry, who see the move as a dangerous encroachment on the intellectual property rights of drugmakers—and as proof that the president is less interested in pleasing big industry donors than they might have hoped.
“The WTO is the final arbiter, thank god,” texted one pharmaceutical company executive who maxed out their donations to the Biden campaign in 2020, noting that they were “annoyed but not surprised” that the administration backs “expropriating” intellectual property in the name of public health.
Biden was a major beneficiary of pharmaceutical dollars during the 2020 presidential campaign, both during the Democratic primary and the general election against President Donald Trump, despite “absolutely positively” supporting a vaccine patent waiver as early as July of last year. The president raised nearly quadruple what Trump did from employees of the pharmaceutical industry, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, despite not accepting donations from corporate PACs. It was the first time in decades that Democrats raked in more from Big Pharma than Republicans.
The connections between the Biden campaign and Big Pharma were closer than just hefty checks, however. Steve Ricchetti, who chaired Biden’s 2020 campaign and currently serves as a White House adviser, ran an eponymous lobbying firm that worked on behalf of Eli Lilly, Novartis and Sanofi.
The administration announced its support for waiving the intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines on Wednesday, after weeks of mounting pressure from left-leaning Democrats who pointed to skyrocketing cases in India and Brazil as a burgeoning humanitarian disaster.
The administration’s aim, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai said in a statement released on Wednesday, “is to get as many safe and effective vaccines to as many people as fast as possible.”
“As our vaccine supply for the American people is secured, the administration will continue to ramp up its efforts—working with the private sector and all possible partners—to expand vaccine manufacturing and distribution,” Tai said.
The move was greeted with applause from public health officials, who have eyed the devolving situation in India as a potential source of vaccine-resistant variants that might undo 15 months of effort to fight the pandemic.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organization, called the decision a “monumental moment” in the global fight against COVID-19, lauding “the wisdom and moral leadership of the United States.”
“Adoption of this waiver is critical to disseminate vaccine technology to middle-income and low-income nations, so that all people around the world can get access to vaccines and treatment, as quickly as possible,” said Paul O’Brien, executive director of Amnesty International USA. “President Biden has made clear that the U.S. prioritizes people’s lives over pharmaceutical company profits.”
But the pharmaceutical industry and its allies have protested that releasing the intellectual property rights will actually drag down vaccine manufacturing and distribution as competition for supplies grows with new manufacturers.
“Undermining intellectual property rights for complex, hard-to-manufacture vaccines will not accelerate global production, instead it will take us off track in the ongoing and successful efforts to license and scale global production of vaccines that individuals can be confident are safe and effective,” said Neil Bradley, executive vice president and chief policy officer of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “This move will undermine the global fight against COVID and it will diminish our ability to prepare for and respond to the next pandemic.”
Despite the anger over the decision, the move didn’t come as a complete surprise. Tai, the U.S. trade representative, began holding what became two dozen meetings with stakeholders about global vaccine issues as early as March, meetings that included discussions about intellectual property concerns, according to an administration official. Those stakeholders were a grab bag of who’s who in the vaccine superstructure, including business groups, advocacy organizations, labor unions, members of Congress, Bill Gates, Dr. Anthony Fauci, and yes, pharmaceutical companies.
Tai and her team met with Biden and other White House officials on Tuesday, the official said, and it was Biden who ultimately made the decision to support the waiver that day.
“This really is one piece of the puzzle in the pandemic. The president made a commitment and a promise during the campaign and this is in keeping with the promise,” the official said, but added this was the beginning of a lengthy process that will ultimately be decided at the World Trade Organization.
That decision, White House deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Air Force One on Thursday, is expected to take “months.”
“This will take time,” Jean-Pierre said. “It’s not going to happen tomorrow or the next day. It will take a few months before this happens, and we will continue to have the conversation, and also just continue the negotiations.”
The timeline is cold comfort for the pharmaceutical company executive and former Biden backer.
“We’re a tempting whipping boy, but we’re not the bad guy. The virus is!” the pharmaceutical executive said, before texting The Daily Beast a link to a Barron’s article arguing that the pharmaceutical industry is amoral, rather than immoral. “Hope they remember that the next time they need a once-in-a-lifetime vaccine created in record time.”
Industry experts aren’t so sure that the intellectual property waiver will discourage pharmaceutical companies from fighting the next pandemic, however.
“Every single time anyone even whispers about doing anything about the pharmaceutical industry’s monopolistic hold on markets—and that's what this is about—the industry immediately cries ‘future innovation,’” said Dr. Peter Bach, health-care policy expert and director of Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Center for Health Policy and Outcomes. “They’ll make lip service comments like, ‘Yeah we shouldn’t be using these patents to change the color of our pill and get 10 more years of patent protection,’ but then they go do it anyway. At this point, it is their only card to play.”
But according to Bach, the metric by which the waiver should be judged is how many lives will be saved by expanding access to vaccine manufacturing—not how many additional billion dollars can be earned by drugmakers.
“If it saved a million lives, now you tell me—you, donors from the pharmaceutical industry—tell me what we’re losing,” Bach said. “What’s on the other side of the ledger?”
Additional reporting by Jackie Kucinich