Amid a global upsurge in cases, President Biden’s decision to open the vaccine recipe is a major step forward, as people everywhere call for governments and companies to temporarily waive intellectual property rules for vaccines, and share technology to increase vaccine production.
As concerns about global variants of COVID-19 emerge around the world, and the dire public health crisis in India continues, more and more people and their elected representatives are calling for governments and pharmaceutical companies to support the People’s Vaccine Alliance proposals for a patent-free, mass-produced vaccine that is distributed fairly and made available free of charge, to every individual, rich and poor alike, in every country.
On May 4, the United States Trade Representative Katherine Tai said the US would support a waiver of intellectual property rules at the World Trade Organization, clearing the path for negotiations on proposals from South Africa and India that would share the technology for COVID-19 vaccines and promote manufacturing around the world to boost production and availability.
Oxfam supporters played an important role in pressuring President Biden to support this crucial waiver proposal at the WTO. More than 56,000 Oxfam supporters in the US joined two million others from around the world signing a petition directly calling for President Biden to support a People’s Vaccine. “This is a testament to the widespread public movement calling for an end to vaccine monopolies,” said Oxfam America President Abby Maxman.
Global campaign pushes for People’s Vaccine
“Intellectual property is the utmost artificial barrier to global vaccine supply,” said noted economist Joseph Stiglitz when he joined more than 170 former heads of state and Nobel prize winners who signed a letter calling on President Biden to support a temporary waiver of intellectual property rules at the World Trade Organization, an important step to encourage more vaccine production in more parts of the world. “New mutations of the virus will continue to cost lives and upend our interconnected global economy until everyone, everywhere has access to a safe and effective vaccine,” he said on April 14.
A week later, an influential group of law makers and public health advocates held a press conference to mark the delivery of a petition signed by two million people calling on President Biden to support the temporary WTO waiver. "Ending this pandemic requires collaboration, solidarity, and empathy. It requires a different mindset... the mindset that tells the pharmaceutical industry that saving perhaps millions of lives is more important than protecting their already excessive profits," Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders said at the press conference. "To me, this is not a huge debate, this is common human morality."
Shareholder pressure on corporations
Corporate shareholders can see the need for change: Oxfam filed resolutions calling on both Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson to provide more information about taxpayer dollars that have gone to fund vaccine development and how that investment will be used to further access to these life-saving medicines. These resolutions got unusually high levels of support at the companies’ annual shareholder meetings in April: 32 percent of J&J investors, and 30 percent of Pfizer shareholders, voted for the measures.
A sign of hope
India is in the grip of a dire public health crisis, as COVID-19 is spreading rapidly and overwhelming hospitals. The country has seen more than 230,000 deaths and is approaching 4,000 deaths each day. Oxfam is helping government hospitals with crucial equipment and oxygen, and assisting migrant workers and other vulnerable people and front-line workers with protective equipment, food, cash, and hygiene items like soap and sanitizer.
India is a one of the main global producers of pharmaceuticals, but very few of India’s 1.39 billion population have access to COVID-19 vaccine. “India is the pharmacy of the world, but it has been gasping for breath, choked by big pharmaceutical corporation monopolies.” says Oxfam India Executive Director Amitabh Behar.
He says that the recent announcement by the US government gives people in India hope: “Now we can begin to see the possibility of a breakthrough that must finally unlock the potential of vaccine production across the developing world. Pre-qualified manufacturers are ready to swing into production mode and start making hundreds of millions of doses, available to all for free. But for that to be possible we need every rich country still blocking a waiver on intellectual property rules to join President Biden and offer hope for India and many other countries that we are indeed not being left behind.”