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Biden Just Turned Down a Golden Opportunity to End Vaccine Apartheid

Joe Biden publicly supports proposals to waive vaccine patents to help end the COVID-19 pandemic. But so far he appears to have no intention of spending political capital to make those proposals a reality.

Joe Biden speaks during a joint press conference with German chancellor Angela Merkel at the White House, July 2021. (Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images)

As German Chancellor Angela Merkel met with President Joe Biden inside the White House on Thursday, July 15, a puppet replica of her stood outside, body bags laid at its feet.

The body bags were meant to symbolize global deaths from COVID-19 since India and South Africa first proposed the idea of a vaccine patent waiver last October, which would bypass intellectual property rights and speed along an urgent scale-up of vaccine production to address the pandemic worldwide.

The death toll stands, since October, at about three million, many of them avoidable if vaccines had been available in the global South. Oxfam estimates that at the “current vaccination rate low income countries would be waiting 57 years for everyone to be fully vaccinated.” Vaccine production has created nine new billionaires, but only 1 percent of people in poor countries have received their first dose.

The protest on Thursday was organized by a coalition of progressive trade advocacy organizations who object to Merkel’s obstruction of the patent waiver proposal in the World Trade Organization (WTO). The WTO operates by consensus, which means that, in principle, any intransigent party can successfully block the implementation of a policy backed by more than a hundred forty countries.

“The protection of intellectual property is a source of innovation and this has to remain so in the future,” Merkel has said in defense of her opposition to the waiver, which would exempt COVID-19 vaccines from the patent protection rules spelled out in the WTO’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights Agreement, or TRIPS.

To improve global vaccine access, Merkel prefers instead to rely on the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access initiative (COVAX), a program that has agreements with current vaccine patent holders and would not challenge their intellectual property rights. COVAX caps vaccine doses at 20 percent of a country’s population, and is meant only as a supplement to the ordinary market-based system. Critics say that while it will protect corporate profits, it will be insufficient to end the pandemic worldwide.

Merkel’s opposition to a waiver of TRIPS nominally puts her at odds with Biden, who publicly avowed his support for the patent waiver in May. Biden was praised by progressives and censured by the pharmaceutical industry for his position. But now groups who want to see the policy implemented say that Biden isn’t doing enough to convince allies like Merkel and make the idea a reality.

The White House meeting on Thursday came and went with no apparent change in Merkel’s position. Biden did not mention the TRIPS waiver in his post-meeting press conference, suggesting either that it was not discussed or that Biden felt no need to publicly pressure Merkel after she privately reiterated her position.

Biden and Merkel’s discussion appeared to focus more on Nord Stream 2, a Russian oil pipeline to Germany that Biden worries will give Russia greater influence over the European energy sector and undermine US dominance. He was willing to give airtime to this disagreement, but said nothing about their disagreement over the vaccine patent waiver.

“For Merkel to get a high-profile White House victory lap and have Pres. Biden proclaim that she ‘never fails to stand for human dignity’ while Biden has failed to get Merkel to stop blocking the WTO COVID vaccine waiver delivers a punishing blow to efforts to end the pandemic,” said Lori Wallach, director of the group Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch.

“To show global leadership, Biden had to get Germany to stop blocking what he says is a U.S. priority to save tens of millions of lives,” she added. “This summit was a failure.”

COVID deaths have risen 40 percent in Africa in the past week alone. Only 1 percent of Africans have been vaccinated, as wealthy nations on other continents have preordered vaccine doses well into the future. Africa’s COVID spike illustrates the urgency of waiving vaccine patents so that global production can scale up immediately, even though to do so would undermine pharmaceutical profits.

Every month that passes without a patent waiver, COVID deaths increase in countries without the resources to buy vaccines. So do the chances of viral mutations whose risks won’t necessarily be contained to the Global South.

Merkel’s rejection of a TRIPS waiver is a deadly policy rooted in her politics of centrist market liberalism — a politics that, in this case, will result in many more deaths worldwide if not swiftly reversed.

Biden just had a chance to take a stand and push for that reversal, but he neglected to spend his political capital pushing the chancellor to get on board with our best shot at ending the pandemic globally. He has taken the right public position on TRIPS, but so far it’s still an open question how serious he is about making it a reality.