What next after Biden’s global health leadership declaration?
Joe Biden administration made its surprise announcement that it would seek to waive American patent protections on coronavirus vaccines.
When the U.S. President Joe Biden administration made its surprise announcement last week that it would seek to waive American patent protections on coronavirus vaccines, many were quick to cheer this as evidence that the president’s much-beloved slogan about global leadership, “America’s back,” was already becoming something more than mere rhetoric.
Here was Washington appearing to put self-interest aside for the benefit of global public health, and in doing so, it would not only be taking on the American pharmaceutical giants that had pioneered the most important vaccine technologies in the first phase of this crisis, but also those of America’s European allies, some of which—particularly Germany—are more reluctant to relinquish lucrative patent rights of their own.
The Biden administration’s sudden move came in response to intense pressure amid news of the devastating spread of the coronavirus in India. This was the first time that a vivid sense of COVID-19’s deadly impact in another country had so thoroughly penetrated American media markets since the virus ravaged Italy and Spain one year ago, and for good reason. India is not just any country. It boasts the earth’s second-largest population and is the country that the world has been desperately counting on to provide vaccines for others—and especially for poor nations. It is, moreover, a partner that Washington has long courted as a friendly strategic and democratic counterweight to China.
Although it feels odd to say so, Biden’s vaccine patent announcement was only qualified good news. In an emergency of this magnitude, privileging the principle of the profit motive for corporations that have already reaped gigantic financial gains from their vaccines is more than merely wrongheaded. It borders on the obscene.
But Biden’s new, seemingly ad hoc approach still has huge faults, principal among them the fact that suspending patent protection is not the solution to the immediate crisis, whether in India or more broadly. Nor is it even likely to have a major long-term impact on the coronavirus pandemic over, say, the next year or even two. That is because not even India, with its large, existing vaccine production industry, is likely to be able to pump out Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines by the billions in the near term. The chances of unproven immunology companies in less industrially advanced countries in the Global South doing so are even slimmer.
What is most needed in the short term instead is a vast ramping up of existing vaccine production; the provision of these vaccines at a discount throughout the so-called developing world, and at deeply subsidized prices to the least developed countries; and finally, help with distribution and vaccine administration where necessary. This should include not only the two vaccines most in use in the United States and mentioned above, which are expensive and difficult to store, but also those of Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca, and Novavax, a little-known company whose shot may be approved in the United States in a matter of weeks. This tiny outfit in particular, whose vaccine is built from relatively cheap, traditional techniques and requires no special refrigeration, would benefit from government help in vastly ramping up its production capacity if approved.
In committing politically and financially to such a course, the United States can do maximal good while also doing well. That is because, as has been frequently observed, islands of rampant transmission of the virus elsewhere in the world will pose a serious threat to people everywhere as the pathogen mutates. This has already become clear in India, where new, so-called double mutant strains are being cited as a new, major worldwide threat.
Suspending patent protections is not the solution to the immediate crisis, whether in India or more broadly.
The weaknesses of the patent waiver approach, fortunately, help point us toward a much more meaningful response to future crises like this one, the arrival of which we can already be certain, making unpreparedness for them unpardonable. These weaknesses also point toward an even more constructive use of U.S. power for the “America’s back” crowd, as a newly vigorous supplier of urgently needed public goods.
Outside of India, it is unlikely that even a full and unrestricted patent handover would lead to the timely production of vaccines on the scale needed to meet a crisis like this or future pandemics; even in India, it is questionable. Many have said that what is needed is not just the lifting of patents, but of broader technology transfer.
As articulated, this would entail a kind of industrial coaching for companies that have never produced, say, an mRNA vaccine through the trickiest and most arcane aspects of the production and quality control process. Even something as unprecedented as this, however, doesn’t go far enough. The United States must take a leading role in making sure that no continent is left out of global efforts to sustain research in virology and develop effective pharmacological prophylaxes and treatments for emergent pathogens in the future.
Put most simply, the world should be working toward a situation where every region is able to quickly and meaningfully join vaccine and therapeutic production efforts. To achieve this means beginning to invest now in educational and industrial training partnerships to create or strengthen sentinel centers of research and industrial expertise on every continent.
A rough analogy for this, in fact, already exists in the field of satellite technology and space exploration. Great powers have long seen virtue in inviting others to partner in their space ventures, at least in limited ways, and the payoff, in time, has been much greater than the mere soft power dividend that they bargained for at the outset. By now, the launching of satellites for scientific purposes has begun to spread even to poorer countries in Latin America, Africa, and the Arab world, offering them the prospect of advancing their development, not just through progress in communications and in the monitoring of the earth and climate for productive purposes, but by lifting their technological skills more broadly.
As Mexican Secretary of Foreign Affairs Marcelo Ebrard recently said of Latin American countries, if they don’t involve themselves in space technologies and research, they will “have more and more disadvantages in scientific and technological matters that translate into weakness and … inability to solve the problems we have in terms of social welfare and other issues.”
Virology and immunology respond to even more urgent needs than space and offer the potential of even bigger paybacks for humankind. They also offer a unique chance to break out of the rich world’s traditionally patronizing model for engaging with poorer countries, which consists mostly of siphoning off elite talent, but also of unrealized pledges and insulting handouts.
There are billions of brains outside of the rich world that can be brought into the process of solving big, shared global problems. But up until this point in our history, the rich have not been imaginative about this at all. The worst pandemic in a century offers an unbidden chance to rise to this challenge.