American News

Will Big Pharma Continue to Own the World’s Health?

With India on the brink, Joe Biden has the power to influence history.
Peter Isackson Daily Devil’s Dictionary, vaccines IP, intellectual property COVID-19 vaccines, US shares vaccines with India, Bill Gates COVID-19 vaccines, Bill Gates COVID-19 vaccines intellectual rights, India COVID-19 cases, Biden administration vaccine sharing, WTO COVID-19 vaccines IP rules waiver, global vaccine access

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April 28, 2021 09:34 EDT

The news from India concerning the ravages of COVID-19 is now beyond alarming. New York Times correspondent Jeffrey Gettleman describes a nation stricken by “the fear of living amid a disease spreading at such scale and speed.” In what sounds like the screenplay of a sci-fi catastrophe film, scientists are talking about an invasion by a “double mutant.” Doctors say the peak is still weeks away as hospitals, filled to capacity, lack the means to keep patients alive.

The Biden administration has exceptionally called into question the US policy of hoarding vaccines for domestic use. It has agreed to share with India millions of doses of AstraZeneca vaccine that was stockpiled while awaiting authorization for use on the US market. This became possible because it turns out the stock of authorized vaccines will be sufficient for domestic needs.

Following a telephone conversation with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, President Biden explained, somewhat cryptically, that the US would be sending “the actual mechanical parts that are needed for the machinery they have to build a vaccine.” Does this mean India will be able to manufacture vaccines whose patents are held by Western pharmaceutical companies? The Indian Express notes that Biden’s initiative “comes after criticism of Washington over its delay in responding and its earlier cold shoulder to a request for lifting the freeze on export of raw materials linked to vaccine manufacturing.”

Bill Gates and the Zero-Sum Vaccination Game


Everyone should know by now that the ice pack for America’s cold shoulder was provided a year ago by philanthropist Bill Gates, who continues to oppose the sharing of know-how and industrial secrets with those who need it most on the grounds that it undermines his logic of industrial production. Even when the taxpayer foots the bill, Gates believes private companies should retain the right not only to skim off all future profits but to manage the scarcity that ensures the vaccine’s long-term profitability.

Criticism of Gates has been rife in recent weeks, but nothing has been done to rectify an increasingly dangerous situation. The progressive populist website Public Citizen gives the details of a news conference in Washington, DC, led by Senator Bernie Sanders and several other lawmakers, accompanied by “leaders of labor, public health, faith and other civil society groups.” They urged the Biden administration to “join 100 other nations in supporting a temporary waiver of World Trade Organization (WTO) rules that now give a few corporations monopoly control over where and how much COVID-19 vaccines and treatments are made.”

Bernie Sanders stated the basic case: “Poor people in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and throughout the world have as much a right to be protected from the virus, to live, as people in wealthier nations. To me, this is not a huge debate, this is common human morality.”

Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:

Common human morality:

An idea inherited from the past but clearly superseded in the present by the laws of free market capitalism that place economic interest above human need as the principal criterion governing public morality.  

Contextual Note

The above quote by Bernie Sanders also featured in an article on another popular progressive website, Common Dreams. Jake Johnson covered it for Salon. Though it was a DC news conference headed by a prominent political figure, none of the major corporate outlets apparently considered it worthy of attaining The New York Times’ vaunted standard of “all the news that’s fit to print.” No one would deny Sanders’s exceptional weight of moral authority, acknowledged even by those who don’t share his “democratic socialist” agenda. So why wasn’t this news?

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The simple answer to that question is that in today’s hypercompetitive world, where everything is about power and profit, the corporate media apparently have no idea what to do with the idea of morality. The institutions known as the liberal corporate media – The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC and even much of broadcast news — stopped showing an interest in common morality the moment they began placing their trust in the likes of the CIA, the NSA and the countless lobbies as their most reliable source of political truth and practical wisdom. To the degree that the various conservative media have always believed in the merits of a dog-eat-dog world where all must fend for themselves in a struggle for personal advantage, they tend to treat the very idea of common human morality as an unfortunate attribute of “snowflakes,” the sign of a weak character.

Bernie Sanders grew up in a moment of history when the notion of a common human morality still had some impact on human behavior. Over the past half-century, it has been replaced by the kind of realism that focuses on personal ambition, private profit and the acquisition of power. Today’s media can only see Sanders’ invocation of common morality as a quaint vestige of former times.

Historical Note

In October 2020, the World Trade Organization published an optimistic take on how the current intellectual property rules could effectively meet the needs of a human race confronted with a global health problem. Subsequent events have revealed how disingenuous their claims were. “Collaboration and cooperation among health technology developers, governments and other stakeholders,” it suggested, “can be positively supported by the IP system as well as by guidance on lawful cooperation among competitors under a country’s domestic competition policy regime.”

In a Politico article with the title “Why waiving patents might not boost global access to coronavirus vaccines,” the authors, Ashleigh Furlong and Sarah Anne Aarup, sum up the current state of the debate concerning the campaign to institute a temporary waiver of the reigning intellectual property rules to permit the production of vaccines in the countries where they are most needed: “By some accounts, the IP waiver is the answer to producing more desperately needed jabs, but it’s being blocked by Big Pharma and wealthy nations guarding their bottom line. Others attest that the waiver makes no sense for vaccines and is being backed by people who are seizing the issue as their chance to make more sweeping changes to the current IP system.”

The “others” in the last sentence would undoubtedly include Bill Gates. This confrontation could potentially become a significant moment in history. Sadly, it will have required the death of millions of people to provoke the “sweeping changes” that are clearly needed to reform a deeply perverse system.

The first indications of a historical shift may appear as soon as next week. On May 5, in response to an initiative of India and South Africa, the WTO’s General Council will meet to consider a patent waiver permitting nations in need to manufacture the vaccines whose IP is now jealously guarded by for-profit pharmaceuticals. According to the National Herald, the “United States so far has remained non-committal on the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) move of India and South Africa over this.” On Monday, the White House informed reporters “that no decision has been made yet” in response to the legislators’ demand for the US to back the proposal.

The suspense will grow in the coming days. Will Biden dare to defy Bill Gates? Does the president of the United States hold more power than the pharmaceutical industry? Before proving himself to be the new Franklin Delano Roosevelt — a claim his supporters have made — can Biden show even a slight aptitude to emulate the other, earlier Roosevelt, the trust-busting Teddy?

Theodore Roosevelt was not just a “rough rider” but also a rough and tough opinionated character. Yet he reflected something that still existed in his day, the idea of a common human morality. He expressed it through his trust-busting but also in various pronouncements. “This country,” he intoned, “will not permanently be a good place for any of us to live in unless we make it a reasonably good place for all of us to live in.” He could even demonstrate political analysis: “This crooked control of both the old parties by the beneficiaries of political and business privilege renders it hopeless to expect any far-reaching and fundamental service from either.”

No establishment Democrat or Republican, not even Bernie Sanders, would dare to pronounce such an obvious truth today, when the corruption that fuels the political system has been sealed into the economic ideology that governs it.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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