Last week, the World Health Organization reported some 5.7 million new cases of COVID-19, a jump of 8 percent from the previous week and the highest number yet recorded. Driven heavily by the surge of new cases in India, it’s a reminder that the pandemic’s end is probably still far away for many outside the affluent West, and that nothing short of unprecedented international cooperation will be sufficient to avert a humanitarian disaster.
Despite plenty of hot air from corporate executives and world leaders, such cooperation really hasn’t occurred — and can’t until the global effort to eradicate the virus overrides the preferences of pharmaceutical companies and the national governments currently prioritizing their profits.
As the Washington Post reported last week, the two may be finally coming to a head within the Biden administration as officials at least privately consider the possibility of waiving current patent rules so vaccines can be produced more widely. Predictably enough, drug companies and their apologists have issued the standard roster of self-interested talking points to justify patent hoarding — each of which can quite easily be dispensed with. Truth be told, it’s difficult to imagine a starker conflict between the interests of profit-driven pharmaceutical giants and the global public good than the current battle over vaccines and intellectual property.
Speaking anonymously to the Post, one official involved in the current discussions quite neatly cut through the bullshit: “The people whose job it is to protect the property of U.S. businesses are up in arms that [patent sharing is] a bad idea. . . . The people whose job is to defeat the pandemic are much more receptive to it.”
One thing the various arguments against waiving the current patent rules tend to have in common is the implication that the status quo is actually in the global public interest. Bill Gates, to cite a particularly emblematic example, used a recent interview with Britain’s Sky News to invoke safety concerns around the possibility of shared vaccine recipes and to suggest the protection of drug companies’ intellectual property rights isn’t actually stifling vaccine production. These claims may be deeply misleading, self-interested, and wrong, but they at least have the pretense of social concern.
So it’s striking that amid the internal political battle over vaccine patents within the Biden administration, a more overtly chauvinistic and nationalist narrative is emerging, as pharma apologists reach for anything and everything they can to justify patent hoarding.
In this spirit, as the Financial Times reported last week, industry lobbyists are increasingly turning to geopolitical arguments designed to reframe a planetwide public health crisis as just another front in the new cold war between America and its rivals — raising the specter of Russia and China acquiring state secrets that could (*shudder*) expedite the development of other vaccines or, still worse, “therapeutics for conditions such as cancer and heart problems in the future.”
Nasty and cruel as the argument sounds when framed in these terms, it’s somehow found an even more contemptible expression, courtesy of none other than Chris Coons — Joe Biden’s close ally and Senate successor in Delaware, and one of Big Pharma’s most reliable tribunes in Washington.
Speaking at an April 22 event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Coons proceeded to recite many of the familiar bad arguments made in favor of the current, Big Pharma–approved intellectual property regime. At the conclusion of his remarks, however, the senator threw a rhetorical curveball — invoking Cold War politics while somehow shoehorning the January 6 storming of the US Capitol into parochial talking points about scientific research and geopolitical rivalry:
Let me close by being optimistic about our ability to invest in innovation, science, and competitiveness here in the United States. If we look back at what happened when the Soviets launched the Sputnik satellite, it was a moment that was a genuine wakeup call for the American people. And as a result, Congress and the administration invested in STEM education, invested in research, and in fundamental and applied science, and the benefits of that lasted for two generations.
January 6 was a moment that was challenging, divisive, difficult for all of us here in Congress, and it was a wakeup call that our country is badly divided [my emphasis]. And the ways in which China has become a peer competitor in investing in R&D, in the number of patents issued, the number of research papers published, and the ways in which they are now trying to take the lead in standard essential — standard-setting bodies — that recent campaign to put a Chinese national at the head of the WIPO, where the PTO director, Andrei Iancu, was — did yeoman’s work to make sure that someone committed to a strong intellectual property system globally instead became the head of the WIPO — all of this is a wakeup call for us that we need to have another Sputnik-like moment of reinvestment in American innovation and competitiveness. A central part of being successful in this competition is continuing with our constitutionally created protected property right of a patent, something I’ve long believed in.
In a sense, Coons’s absurd framing is useful because it strips the terrible arguments made by the likes of Bill Gates of any artifice and transforms a question of global public health into one of naked imperial self-interest. Awkward and out of place as it seems, even his reference to the events of January 6 is clearly intended in this spirit: the implication being that America can and should try to rectify its internal cultural divisions by rallying the nation against global competitors (and, in this case, depriving people in the poorest parts of the world of lifesaving vaccines that could be produced much more rapidly if patents were shared).
It’s as grotesque and immoral as any argument for patent hoarding made yet. And it’s a further reminder that embedded interests and their political mouthpieces will stop at nothing to protect the profits of pharmaceutical companies, global pandemic be damned.