Howard Dean, the former Democratic presidential hopeful and progressive champion turned corporate lobbyist (and national embarrassment), last month penned an article pleading with Joe Biden to prevent generic versions of American Covid vaccines from being approved. Under the headline “India wants to copy American vaccines. Biden shouldn’t fall for it,” Dean argued that doing away with international patent protections would “undermine American innovation” and account for a potential loss in US earnings. “Far from impeding patients’ access to new drugs,” he wrote, “IP protections encourage companies to create drugs in the first place.”
So far, nearly 800 million vaccines have been administered across the globe, but well over three quarters of these vaccines have been used by the world’s 10 richest countries, who account for over 60 percent of global GDP. In fact, more than 80 percent of all Pfizer’s Covid vaccines have already been purchased by these countries. Concerned by these figures, Amnesty International has accused wealthy nations of “hoarding” vaccines, as the US and other countries have outpriced poorer countries and purchased enough doses to vaccinate their entire populations several times over. To date, tens of millions of AstraZeneca vaccines sit in warehouses across the US, without a single dose having been administered in America, while countries across the world petition for access.
Even if supplies were available, at a cost of $40 dollars per vaccination with Pfizer and similar prices for other leading vaccines, developing countries are struggling to budget for a universal vaccination program for their citizens. Similar to copyright law preventing knock-off versions of high-end gadgets, patent rules — upheld by WTO’s Council for Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights — protect discoveries by Big Pharma.
After years of intense pressure and tragic suffering, the WTO finally agreed in November 2015 to waive patent rules for HIV medications, allowing for those in need who were living in poorer countries to have access to lifesaving antiretroviral medications. The same should now be done with Covid-19 vaccines, without the delay.
Led by India and South Africa, countries across the globe have submitted a proposal to the WTO to waive vaccine intellectual property and pave the way to significantly ramp up production. But despite receiving $12.4 billion in public funding to develop vaccines, Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson and Johnson have strongly opposed waiving any patents, calling on Biden to instead punish countries pushing for cheaper alternatives. These drug-makers have even promised investors they have plans to hike the price of Covid-19 vaccines in the near future.
Even before Covid, higher GDP was linked with higher vaccination rates for other diseases. Historically, developing cures has not always been a for-profit industry. The patent for the treatment of diabetes, insulin, was sold for $1 in 1923. Frederick Banting, the doctor who made the discovery, refused to put his name on the patent as he felt it was unethical for a doctor to profit from an innovation that could save lives. That’s why insulin is highly affordable in every developed country in the world — except for the US, where a process called “evergreening” allows drug companies to charge astronomical prices.
Big Pharma has a history of up-pricing medications. Advil, which is owned by Pfizer, is a great example. Despite the patent on the active ingredient (ibuprofen) having expired long ago, the average cost of a 24-pack of Advil is around $13, for a tablet that costs less than 1 cent to manufacture per tablet. That is over 1,000 percent in profit for Pfizer.
Pfizer is projected to make $15 billion from the Covid vaccine, making it one of the most lucrative drugs in the world. Even with a patent waiver for developing countries, the company would still be making huge profits — especially considering a large proportion of research funding for its vaccine partner BioNTech came from public resources.
So no, Howard Dean — who works for a law and lobbying firm that recently worked on intellectual property rights for Pfizer — should not be talking about protecting US profits right now. This conversation should be about helping the world recover from a crisis. Trust me: Pfizer and US innovation will do just fine.
To bring an end to preventable deaths from coronavirus, we need to learn from the mistakes of the HIV/AIDs crisis. Vaccine apartheid has to stop. With coronavirus destroying so many lives, and pushing nearly300 million into extreme poverty, now is simply not the time to focus on the bottom line.