By now you’ve heard that the Biden administration’s attempt to waive drug company patents will make virtually no difference to poor countries fighting the Covid pandemic. Oddly, you’ve heard it from both supporters and opponents of his action.
It won’t improve vaccine makers’ incentive to maximize production; they have every incentive now. It won’t improve affordability of the vaccine, already the best bargain in history. The World Bank has $4 billion burning a hole in its pocket to help poor countries acquire and distribute shots when available.
Nor is a lack of competition, a k a monopoly, the problem: Fifteen vaccines, including four Russian and five Chinese, are already approved for large swaths of earth’s population, with dozens more in development.
The only real challenge is hiking production fast enough of a specialized product that didn’t exist a few months ago in order that everybody in the world can receive it.
The voices in Mr. Biden’s ear were the same voices that always clamor for invalidating drug company patents, regardless of circumstance. On Monday, in response to another clamor, he finally relaxed the U.S. claim on surplus vaccine coming off factory lines for the benefit of countries in deep struggle against the Covid virus. Remember these episodes next time the Biden administration tells you it isn’t just living off the capital of Operation Warp Speed, it’s “innovating” on its own.
More clearly than ever, the previous U.S. administration and the current British one were astonishing aberrations, casting aside bureaucratic caution, throwing billions at vaccine makers on grounds that it was impossible to waste money when the potential payoff was so high. Other countries, we’ve slowly come to understand, engaged in more hand-waving than action, their officials hesitant to commit to purchases for fear of being accused of overpaying, buying the wrong vaccine, or too much coziness with drug makers. Result: Money is not flowing to vaccine production that could be; the time and attention of vaccine makers is consumed with political gamesmanship it shouldn’t be.
Did private investors need to fund high-risk efforts to replace ingredients in short supply? Should they pour concrete for factories that might sit idle for want of equipment and materials? All the wrong signals were sent.
Covax, a vehicle for vaccinating poor countries born a month before Warp Speed, was sidetracked by multilateral virtue signaling. To show the magnanimity of its sponsors, most nations would get the vaccine free despite the availability of aid money, though this would mean Covax lacked any cash flow of its own to secure production commitments. In the name of equity, supply would be dribbled out to many countries simultaneously rather than focused on those that could use it. Congo recently tried to return 1.3 million doses in danger of expiring, having administered fewer than 1,000 shots.
Pledges by the U.S. and other countries did not result in what the World Bank delicately calls “encashment.” Covax’s self-praising sponsors seemingly didn’t want it competing with them for early vaccine supply. Now with the U.S. swimming in more vaccine than it can use, it’s still sitting on rights to 60 million
doses not yet approved for U.S. consumption that could be used elsewhere.
OK, countries will put their own voters first. The Biden administration’s overwhelming priority was to pass a superfluous domestic bailout package, on top of those already passed, so it could claim credit for the pandemic recovery already visible around the corner.
Politicians will act politically; only offensive is the unusual sycophancy of the U.S. press in covering the Biden administration’s political motives.
A top international aid official tells me Mr. Biden’s latest patent proposal, however popular with the left, would only upset the beneficial dynamic that led investors to pour billions into mRNA technology in the first place. The same incentive is attracting billions now to develop booster vaccines as well as more-practical delivery methods (e.g., nasal spray).
and other European leaders seem set to stop the charade at the World Trade Organization, whose approval would be needed. Maybe a new dawn of realism is breaking. The absurd credit Team Biden keeps bestowing on itself is wearing thin. It’s about time, because there’s a real job to be done. Amid the horrors in India you’ve been reading about, a billion Indians have yet to be exposed to the virus. Inoculating them and millions of others in Indonesia, Pakistan, the Philippines, Nigeria and other giant urbanized developing countries—and, yes, China—may yet be the difference between global stability and instability in the coming decade.
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