On Thursday night, President Joe Biden announced in his televised address that he was directing states to make all adults eligible to receive a Covid-19 vaccine by the start of May. The cheery proclamation reflected the fact that the vaccine rollout has gone much better than one might have expected, considering how poorly the federal and state governments handled the Covid-19 pandemic for most of the last year.
Nearly 20 percent of the population has received at least one dose of the vaccine already. The numbers are genuinely great. It might feel strange to be optimistic given what we’ve all been through, but America could be close to normal by the summer, just as Biden promised.
That is the sort of success we should have had in fighting the pandemic last year. America is a very rich country with a lot of mature institutions. As 2020 began, experts maintained that the U.S. (along with Great Britain, which has had a similarly disastrous pandemic response, followed by a similarly successful vaccine campaign) was vastly prepared for a public health emergency such as a new epidemic.
There are myriad reasons why our initial public health response was such a botch. That we are doing a substantially better job rolling out the vaccines is likely down to the fact that it’s a problem we can simply throw money at—and we can print a lot of money. The U.S. was able to subsidize vaccine development and then purchase enough doses to immunize every American three times over.
That is a lot of vaccine. So much so that many are wondering what Joe Biden’s administration plans to do with it all. The Washington Post reported on March 11 that the administration “faces growing pressure to distribute coronavirus vaccines to other countries in response to aggressive ‘vaccine diplomacy’ campaigns by China and Russia.”
Other nations, especially in the global south, have not yet successfully secured nearly enough vaccine doses for their populaces; throughout much of the world, the inoculation campaigns have barely begun. There are obvious moral reasons to care about this disparity, but there are “strategic” considerations, as well: Covid-19 mutates when it moves freely through large populations, and the strongest mutations cannot be easily contained in poorer countries.
It is therefore in our national interest to share our abundance of vaccine with nations in short supply, to mitigate the risk of a new strain rebooting the pandemic. But the Post describes such considerations as mere political calculations for Biden: Balancing, on the one hand, an American public that might be upset at seeing “our” doses sent overseas or south of the border, versus the government’s interest in countering Russian and Chinese vaccine diplomacy (which, as usual for the American press, is treated as inherently nefarious because of the countries doing it).
“The United States’ authoritarian adversaries,” the Post says, “have the field mostly free for the moment to send vaccines to nations from Mexico to Lebanon to Uzbekistan.” Their actions have “sparked a debate within the administration about how to balance national security, humanitarian needs, and political concerns.”
Some “experts” urge Biden to ship doses to other countries to reestablish our international leadership. But “the reaction among Americans could be explosive if Biden supplies vaccines to other countries while many in the United States are still struggling to get the shots.”
Treated in these terms, the decision to use American resources to help the rest of the world get inoculated more quickly is, indeed, a conundrum. But, weirdly, the Post completely fails to mention what some of those other countries actually want from the U.S.—and what our government is refusing to do.
In this narrative, Biden is weighing a decision to purchase doses from, say, Johnson and Johnson, and ship them across the globe. Those doses are currently scarce because only a few companies have the capacity—and the right—to manufacture vaccines. That scarcity creates the political dilemma.
What the Post fails to mention—indeed, what most American reporting on this subject has neglected to make clear—is that other countries are simply asking for the right to manufacture vaccine doses of their own, as opposed to drawing from existing supply in the U.S. for their own larders. They were, in fact, making precisely that demand at a meeting of the World Trade Organization held the week The Washington Post story was published.
Since last year, 57 countries, along with organizations like Oxfam and Amnesty International, have been begging the WTO to temporarily waive patent protection for the vaccines, so that countries such as India and South Africa might be able to produce their own Covid-19 vaccines and other treatments, which could be more affordable and available to the developing world. And since last year, rich countries, led by the U.S. the U.K., and the European Union, have been blocking that demand. The latest attempt to get them to reconsider failed just last week. As one report put it: “Representatives for the U.S. welcomed further engagement with the proposal’s sponsors, according to the trade official, but wished the countries would bear in mind the importance of incentives for innovation.”
This, and not whether to be charitable with “our” doses, is the actual political decision Joe Biden’s administration faces. But with a few exceptions (notably Bernie Sanders making a video statement in support of waiving the patents), this is simply not an argument to which Americans have been exposed.
Usually, when you read someone say “the media isn’t talking about” something, they illustrate their point with lots of links to newspaper articles. But outside of a few brief mentions of the People’s Vaccine Alliance in the mainstream American press, it’s difficult to find much coverage of the WTO decision outside of specialized outlets dedicated to foreign policy or intellectual property news. The word “patents” doesn’t appear once in the Washington Post story mentioned above. (To be fair to the Post, it did a separate story on the patent waiver demand last month, though that makes the fact that this prior reporting failed to make it into its more recent stories much less excusable.)
When our corporate press talks about international vaccine production and distribution, it tends to treat the existing intellectual property regime as sacrosanct—almost akin to an immutable natural law—and not something imposed on the rest of the world largely by the U.S., through trade agreements and organizations like the WTO. (That we effectively deny certain technologies and medications to poor nations for ideological reasons, and to protect the profits of multinational corporations, is one of those facts that is rarely acknowledged by the nonpartisan press because it just sounds too left-wing.) As a result, there is little to no domestic pressure on the Biden administration to reconsider its fanatical devotion to the property rights of a few pharmaceutical companies, elevating those rights over the acute needs of dozens of nations representing billions of people. There was no cost to be paid for tabling the issue yet again, as the WTO’s intellectual property council did last week.
While I think most of the arguments against waiving the patents basically amount to evidence-free repetition of free-market shibboleths (i.e., “Entrepreneurial innovation” made the vaccines possible; and, sure, removing the profit motive wouldn’t make the already existing vaccines go away, but what if, the next time there is a global pandemic, everyone decides not to make any vaccines, on account of being mad about the patent waiver?), it’s obviously possible that a patent waiver isn’t the optimal policy for ramping up production and distribution worldwide as quickly as possible. But here in the U.S., we’re not even having that debate.
Vaccine distribution is being spoken and written about as a zero-sum game because of the conditions of artificial scarcity that our government has created and is presently enforcing. If more Americans actually knew the substance of the requests being made by other nations, they’d have no reason to worry about losing any of “our” vaccine doses. Instead, they would understand that the only thing at risk—and only temporarily at that—are some potential future profits of Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, and the like. It’s hard to believe many of them would side with our government’s position on the matter. The lack of interest by the American media means we’ll never get to find out.