Over a year ago the Biden administration endorsed the idea that there should be enough Covid-19 vaccines for everyone in the world and that patents and international trade agreements should not be allowed to prevent that goal. But the administration has not taken the decisive leadership position to achieve it, and those barriers continue to block access to the vaccines for billions of people.
The announcement came after public health advocates urged Biden to honor his 2020 campaign promise to me that if the United States were to discover a vaccine, he would ensure that no patents stand in the way of other countries’ and companies’ mass-producing it. This time last year, I made a public appeal to Biden in The Nation to vaccinate the world. Since Biden’s pledge, little progress has been made to guarantee that people everywhere can get vaccinated, and thousands of people are still dying preventable deaths every day from the coronavirus.
Recently, on behalf of Oxfam and other shareholders, World Health Organization director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and I introduced resolutions at the Pfizer and Moderna shareholder meetings to study the feasibility of sharing vaccine technology with other manufacturers to ramp up production around the world. Shareholders voted down those resolutions. Without the threat of losing their monopolies, pharmaceutical companies have little incentive to make the morally right decision.
Pfizer and Moderna are not the heroes they make themselves out to be. The two companies received billions of dollars in public taxpayer funding to develop their vaccines. In fact, the public completely funded Moderna’s vaccine project. Their innovations were made possible by US taxpayer money and contributions from the international scientific community. Instead of sharing the technology to boost global manufacturing, Pfizer and Moderna have maintained a monopoly on an innovation that all of us helped to develop. Pfizer and Moderna cannot produce enough doses on their own to vaccinate the world. By upholding their monopoly, they allow billions of people to remain unvaccinated.
While 80 percent of people in high- and upper-middle-income countries have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, only 16 percent of people in low-income countries have been able to secure the same protections. And yet, as of February, Pfizer allocated just 1 percent of its vaccine supply to low-income countries, and Moderna allocated even less. Meanwhile, as of March, Pfizer anticipates $32 billion in vaccine sales for 2022 and Moderna expects $19 billion. Pfizer and Moderna are complicit in exacerbating vaccine inequity in the name of profit.
On May 12, the United States will cohost a global summit for the purpose of “bringing solutions to vaccinate the world, save lives now, and build better health security—for everyone, everywhere.” But we are failing to heed our own exhortations. The US federal government has already stopped paying for treatments and vaccines for many people in this country, let alone others. Congress must pass Covid-19 supplemental funding now to protect people in America and throughout the world against the virus. Biden must also put diplomatic muscle behind his commitment at the global summit and convince the European Union and other world leaders to secure an intellectual-property waiver at the World Trade Organization that includes vaccines, testing, and treatment.
As one of the biggest beneficiaries of Big Pharma’s vaccine supply, we in the United States have a moral obligation to help vaccinate the rest of the world. The United States has the opportunity to lead the charge to waive intellectual property rights so that other countries can produce vaccines and protect their citizens.
We urgently need diversified, global manufacturing to provide equitable access to vaccines, save lives, reduce the risk of variants, and kick-start economic recovery. Making sure that everyone can get vaccinated is our best chance at ending the pandemic for all.