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Waiving vaccine patent rights may be the ‘only way’ to end the pandemic

President Biden announced that the U.S. will support waiving patent rights for the COVID vaccines — a major move that follows a call domestically, and internationally, for America to provide much quicker and greater assistance to the rest of the world. William Brangham looks at the potential impact of this decision and the reaction to it with Madhavi Sunder of the Georgetown University Law Center.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The president's announcement that the U.S. will waive patent rights for COVID vaccines is a signal change in policy. And it comes after a call in this country and internationally for much quicker and larger assistance for the rest of the world.

    William Brangham looks at the potential impact of this decision and the reaction to it.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right, Judy.

    Nations are meeting right now at the World Trade Organization discussing this very question of waiving vaccine patent protections. The U.S. Senate will engage in those talks tomorrow.

    This comes as less than 10 percent of the world's population has been vaccinated. And the disparities are enormous. The richest countries are getting vaccinated about 25 times faster than those with lower incomes. The global demand for these vaccines is far greater than the supply.

    Madhavi Sunder is associate dean for international and graduate programs and a professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center. And she joins me now.

    Thank you very much for being here.

    I know you had pressed for this change as well. There was a lot of public pressure on the administration to do so. Make the case. Why is this the right move?

  • Madhavi Sunder:

    Well, it's not just the right move. It's appropriate, it's necessary, and it's not — it's coming not a moment too soon.

    Basically, patents are limiting the supply of these incredibly vital COVID-19 vaccines. In order to achieve global herd immunity, experts estimate that we need 11 billion doses. And right now, in terms of just looking at licensed suppliers for these vaccines, we're talking about just over three billion doses that we have pathways to see produced.

    Without access to this patented technology that could be available much more broadly to manufacturers around the globe, we're not going to get anywhere near those numbers that we need. The great news in the U.S. is, President Biden is aiming for herd immunity in the United States by July 4. That's 70 percent of our population vaccinated.

    But, right now, in terms of the rest of the world, we're at 0.2 percent of low- and middle-income countries having received the jab. This is absolutely necessary for us to end this pandemic once and for all.

  • William Brangham:

    It seems also, even if you put aside the moral case, which, as you're saying, is a very strong one, that we should provide these, there's also, from a public health standpoint, given these variants and how much they are spreading, that there's a public health argument to make that we need to put this fire out globally.

  • Madhavi Sunder:

    Oh, absolutely.

    I mean, this is what a pandemic is. Not one of us is safe until all of us around the world are safe. And so our success here at home will be terribly undermined if we don't attend to this incredible need around the world.

    And let me just add one more thing. This is an unprecedented move. But we have been here before. A century ago, the United States government broke the Wright brothers' patents in their airplane flight technology, because it was critical to our war effort in World War I. And, again, we're at that point of incredible need in terms of our national security, and, as you say, global public health.

    So, I'm so happy about this news. And we just hope that Europe and others will join in supporting the U.S. and pushing for these — waiving these patents on these vaccines.

  • William Brangham:

    As you might imagine, the pharmaceutical industry is not happy about this.

    A representative of PhRMA, the pharmaceutical industry trade group, put out a statement today saying: "This move will not save lives" and — quote — "The Biden administration has taken an unprecedented step that will undermine our global response to the pandemic and compromise safety."

    What do you make of that argument?

  • Madhavi Sunder:

    Well, I'm really concerned to hear them raising concerns about safety.

    I mean, we have generic producers of medicines and vaccines around the world, especially in India, for example. India's called the pharmacy to the developing world. And they have for decades provided safe and effective — effective medicines for not just the low- and middle-income countries, but the United States too.

    So I think it's really irresponsible to raise questions about safety. Now, of course, we have to deal with those questions even in our own country. So they're important. But when we're dealing with real issues like vaccine hesitancy, I think we have to be very cautious about that, and recognize that, in fact, we have extremely reliable and safe and effective generic producers of drugs and vaccines around the world.

    In terms of their other concerns, I think their concerns about — they're concerned about the effect of this waiver on incentives. But this was a very unusual — the production of the COVID-19 vaccines is an outlier, because it was the result of enormous investment by U.S. government, and basically U.S. taxpayers.

    The Moderna vaccine, for example, was paid for 99.9 percent by taxpayers because of the critical need and urgency. And so this isn't a case of just a private company going it alone. This was a critical public-private partnership. And the Biden administration has rightly recognized that this vaccine technology, which we not only paid for, but, in fact, our researchers at the National Institutes of Health, their basic research is actually fundamental to the Moderna vaccine.

    So, we supported the critical research that made this vaccine possible. We paid for the vaccine. And so the Biden administration now is rightly recognizing that we need to use this technology. In order to help ourselves at home, we need to be helping others around the globe to get vaccinated.

    And that's the only way to end this pandemic once and for all. So, it's got to be — these vaccines need to be produced as soon as possible.

  • William Brangham:

    All right. Madhavi Sunder, thank you very much for joining us from Georgetown University Law Center.

  • Madhavi Sunder:

    Thanks so much for having me.

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