from the devil-in-the-details dept
Earlier this week we wrote about the absolutely ridiculous coalition of folks who were lobbying against the US supporting a TRIPS intellectual property waiver to support fighting COVID. As we noted, it was totally expected that Big Pharma would object to it, but the surprising thing was seeing Hollywood and the legacy entertainment industry — an industry that needs COVID to go away to get back to normal — coming out strongly against the waiver as well. They claimed they had to do so since the waiver would apply to copyright as well, but that’s nonsense. The waiver (1) explicitly excluded entertainment products and (2) is expressly limited to “prevention, containment or treatment of COVID-19.”
On top of that, the waiver process was built into the TRIPS agreement, and if a full on global pandemic that has already killed over 3 million people (and counting) isn’t the time to use the waiver, then the waiver is effectively meaningless.
Thankfully, the US has now announced that it will be supporting a waiver. USTR Katherine Tai made the announcement:
These extraordinary times and circumstances of call for extraordinary measures.
— Ambassador Katherine Tai (@AmbassadorTai) May 5, 2021
“This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures. The Administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections, but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for COVID-19 vaccines. We will actively participate in text-based negotiations at the World Trade Organization (WTO) needed to make that happen. Those negotiations will take time given the consensus-based nature of the institution and the complexity of the issues involved.
“The Administration’s aim is to get as many safe and effective vaccines to as many people as fast as possible. As our vaccine supply for the American people is secured, the Administration will continue to ramp up its efforts – working with the private sector and all possible partners – to expand vaccine manufacturing and distribution. It will also work to increase the raw materials needed to produce those vaccines.”
Of course, the details here matter. Tai says the US will support a waiver for vaccines… but did not definitively say if it will support the waiver currently applied for from South Africa and India. It would be just like the US to say it supports the waiver to get everyone who supports the effort to cheer… and then go into negotiations and push for a much, much narrower (and potentially effectively meaningless) waiver. Hopefully that’s not the case.
Still, just getting the USTR to support any waiver was a big step. This was far from the most likely outcome. The pharma industry is incredibly powerful at the lobbying game, and when you add Hollywood’s muscle to it as well, many people felt that the US would refuse to support the waiver. Hell, earlier this week they even got Dr. Fauci to come out leaning against it, saying he was agnostic on the actual waiver, but thought there were better ways to fight COVID (Fauci may be an expert in infectious diseases, but his expertise in intellectual property is… that he holds a few patents of his own). And, of course, Biden has always had a close relationship with Hollywood and has long been a copyright maximalist.
And, while Fauci may be correct that this may not be the most important thing for fighting COVID, no one is saying this is the only thing. This is just one of a long list of things, and it will undoubtedly help deal with restrictions in some areas that are costing people lives.
In the end, this came down to a simple question: is the best way to protect the global economy to protect the monopoly interests of a few giant companies, or to use knowledge, information, and expertise to help spread better treatments and vaccines faster. The US chose the latter, and it was the only moral choice.