Decades before the inception of the WTO and travel, companies like Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson enjoyed the protection of restrictive intellectual property rules. Via Trips, they sought to impose the same rules on developing countries, whose more liberal laws had allowed the production of more affordable and duplicate versions of their drugs. Travel has reversed the situation, slowing the diffusion of pharmaceutical know-how in developing countries, stalling innovation and raising drug prices.
As the WTO meeting approached, the industry strengthened its resolve against the Trips waiver. In The Economist, Michelle McMurry-Heath, president and CEO of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, a leading trade association, wrote that she could undermine industry incentives to develop solutions for future health emergencies. She accused “interested” countries of pushing the initiative “to exploit the pandemic to acquire innovative technology invented in America and Europe” and suggested that countries could harness the “biological weapons potential” of vaccines based on the vaccine. mRNAs like those made by Pfizer and Moderna – a spurious claim, experts said.
These arguments, however misleading, clarify the industry’s position. Extended patent protection – leveraging the marketing and pricing of a product over a long period of time – has given it a formidable monopoly, which stifles innovation rather than encourages it.
Pharmaceutical companies also seem reluctant to admit that a temporary suspension like this, affecting a single product, would hardly affect its results. This year, Pfizer is expected to generate $ 15 billion in sales from its vaccine, with profit margins between 25% and 30%. Profits from the Covid-19 vaccine alone could be around $ 4 billion. While the industry certainly deserves to be commended for the rapid development of vaccines, it could not have done so without generous government subsidies: the United States alone has given more than $ 12 billion to six major vaccine companies for this purpose.
In the absence of consensus at the WTO, granting a waiver to Trips would require the support of a large majority of the 164 members of the WTO. Around 100 WTO member governments now support this initiative; 60 of them are official sponsors. Given Washington’s effective veto power over the institution, Mr. Biden’s backing could push it to the top.
Mr. Biden need not fear a return of political force. A recent survey by Data for Progress and Progressive International found that 60 percent of US voters support waiving Trips; only 28% oppose it. He should also keep in mind that pharmaceutical companies, with their penchant for high prices, are among the least reliable sectors of the US industry.
Mr. Biden’s choice is therefore clear: to protect a patent regime that protects the interests of powerful multinationals or empowers developing countries to defend themselves. On Wednesday, the world will know if it has the courage to do the right thing.
Walden Bello is a co-founder of Focus on the Global South and an assistant professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Binghamton.
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