Vaccine diplomacy: within Biden’s decision on Covid patents

Before becoming president, Joe Biden vowed to change the U.S. government’s approach to the pharmaceutical industry by supporting a move to end the rights of companies to enforce their intellectual property on Covid vaccines. .

“It’s the only human thing in the world that can be done,” as he at a campaign event in July 2020.

But by the time the decision was announced last week, many in government and industry were skeptical that the U.S. president would follow through on his campaign promises. Not only are many high-ranking executives in his administration skeptical, but some pharma executives believe a U.S. government would actually take a strong position against the industry’s powerful lobby. .

“Never thought Biden would take the pharmacy lobby, [they thought] that he was so scared, ”said Brandon Barford, a fellow at Washington -based consultancy Beacon Policy Advisers. “But before the financial crisis [of 2008], everyone thought the financial services industry was untouched, after all that changed. It was revealed this week that pharma companies are the new banks. ”

When India and South Africa first approached the World Trade Organization in October last year with a proposal that suspended the intellectual property rights for all drugs and technology related to Covid, it was quickly fired. Not only are the US and EU opposed to abandoning the Trips intellectual property agreement for Covid drugs, they have blocked any discussion about it.

Biden’s comments about campaign surveillance open up the possibility of a change in U.S. policy. However, even if Katherine Tai, the U.S. chief marketing envoy, began a multi -departmental consultation on the issue last month, most officials think the U.S. will continue the position adopted by the administration. Donald Trump.

“There’s pressure to do this from Democratic members of Congress,” a senior pharma industry lobbyist told the Financial Times last month. “But the White House will never bring it back.”

Over the course of the next three weeks, Tai found people with an interest in the issue, from union leaders to the chief executive of vaccine manufacturers. Many who attended the meetings said it was difficult to say what Tai had planned, but people on both sides of the debate from the talks believed he supported their arguments.

Asia Russell was part of a virtual meeting with Tai on April 13 in his capacity as executive director of Health Gap, an organization dedicated to improving access to HIV drugs around the world.

“I don’t think he had his mind in mind when he met us,” said Russell, a well -known campaigner for the waiver. “But he told us that the government’s response to the Covid crisis has not been as business -friendly as usual, which we find encouraging.”

Two weeks later, Tai held virtual meetings with senior executives of every company there was Covid vaccines authorized in the US or about to do so: Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, Novavax and AstraZeneca.

they he was told Supporting an abandonment of Trips would undermine the U.S. vaccine launch by increasing competition for scarce vaccine-making supplies, while also allowing Russia and China to access America’s technological breakthroughs. “We made a strong case and he definitely listened,” said a medical industry man involved in the talks.

Those who negotiated with Tai say his inscrutability is one of his greatest assets. “[Tai] not someone you like at your poker game, because he’ll kick your ass, ”said one person who joined the consultants. “He got the best face in poker.”

Meanwhile, high-ranking members of the Biden administration have expressed their concerns in supporting a waiver. Gina Raimondo, the secretary of commerce, was the most straightforward, agreeing with many people involved in the talks, with her U.S. Patent and Trademark Office department particularly concerned about the long-term impact on intellectual property rights. American property.

Many people also said David Kessler, the head of Operation Warp Speed, the government’s program that helps develop vaccines, was opposed to the waiver. Someone who was involved with the consultants said Kessler described it as the “third rail” for the pharmaceutical industry – the higher the fee the more untouched it is. A Kessler spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.

One of the most famous figures to express concern is Anthony Fauci, the president’s chief medical adviser and one of America’s most renowned public health experts. Just two days before the decision was announced, Fauci said told the Financial Times he is “agnostic” on the issue, but worries that it will end the U.S.’s frenzy of long -term judgment on pharma companies.

Fauci’s comments provoked a reaction from progressive campaigners, who accused the administration of bowing to the pharmacist lobby.

But people inside the administration say the anger of progressives is not what won one day.

However, Tai and Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, both argued that it was a short-sighted risk to ensure a diplomatic victory for the Biden administration, which started a fire over non-exports. many vaccines and failure to respond adequately of the impending Covid crisis in India. The litigation is a distant threat given how long the WTO negotiations will take and may not happen if others including the UK and EU continue to oppose the move.

A day after Fauci spoke, Tai presented his conclusion to Biden at a meeting at the Oval Office. Also in attendance were Ron Klain, the president’s chief of staff, Bruce Reed, Klain’s deputies, Sullivan and Jeff Zients, the head of the White House Covid task force. None of the prominent opponents of the idea attended; Raimondo was in Connecticut at the time, according to his department.

The president and his advisers were particularly convinced by diplomatic grounds to back up a waiver, as announced at the meeting. “This is not the step to end the pandemic,” said someone inside the administration. “But politics makes sense.”

Campaigners for the waiver say they will now monitor WTO discussions to ensure they are not taken to the point where it ceases to be applicable. Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany, has already said she is opposed to the move.

Although those in Washington say that whatever the outcome of the WTO talks, the U.S. pharmaceutical industry has now lost the light of the untouchables. That could have major consequences for future policy debates such as how to reduce U.S. drug costs, since patent protections are the cornerstone that allows pharma companies to charge premiums. price over a period of time without fear of rivalry from more affordable rivals for the most part.

“There’s now a broad consensus in the Democratic party that something needs to be done about drug prices,” Barford said. “What the president is doing is showing that it can be done.”

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