How big pharma is trying to block vaccine patent waivers

New DelhiEdited By: Gravitas deskUpdated: May 19, 2021, 02:15 PM IST
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According to Tim Bierley, a pharma campaigner for the group, mRNA vaccines should have revolutionised the global Covid response, but Pfizer is withholding this essential medical innovation from the world, ripping public health systems off for an "eye-watering mark-up." Photograph:(Reuters)

Story highlights

Vaccine research was funded by taxpayers' money but now that vaccines are selling big, pharma giants want to own them and build pressure on the government to not share them

America seems to have woken up. It wants to share vaccines and waive vaccine patents. After hoarding them for months, it now wants to play the good guy.


When the US had announced support for patent waivers, pharma lobbyists both in America and Europe had issued statements slamming the move. Big pharma wants to keep the patents locked.

Pharma companies have been actively lobbying and trying to stop governments from waiving patents both in America and Europe. In fact, they have gone into overdrive.

An investigative website has accessed some confidential exchanges between pharma lobbyists and lawmakers. It shows big pharma trying everything to stop patent waivers. They are supplying lawmakers with talking points while drumming up opposition, even collecting signatures from lawmakers to get US President Joe Biden to reverse his policy.

A letter was recently addressed to the US president. Ideally, a letter like this should be distributed by a lawmaker when they are trying to galvanise support for a policy but this one was being shared by big pharma with friendly American lawmakers.

Reports say a lobbyist representing major companies like Pfizer, Johnson and Johnson and AstraZeneca sent out the letter in an email and asked for signatures of support from some lawmakers.

It is drafted like a warning to President Biden. It says that sharing vaccine know-how would cost American jobs and it will allow China to profit from "American innovation". The report says the letter already has 29 signatures.

Vaccine research was funded by taxpayers' money but now that vaccines are selling big, pharma giants want to own them and build pressure on the government to not share them. They are therefore manipulating the narrative.

There is a list of the talking points that America's pharma lobby has been distributing. It labels a waiver as a national security threat. The document argues that a waiver will empower Russia and allow China to "gobble up vaccine supplies and technology".

Even India figures in the campaign by big pharma. India was one of the first countries to push for the waiver at the WTO, so these lobbyists have dedicated an entire document to India.

The document talks about aid that big pharma has voluntarily shared with India during the second wave. 

It is a three page-long document detailing the donations by different companies. 

Usually, lobbyists use papers to guide lawmakers and influence policy but with these papers, big pharma is trying to tell lawmakers that they voluntarily step up to help in the time of need and in return for this, the government should not touch their patents. 

However, such influence campaigns have not been limited to America. It has been launched in the European Union as well. Big pharma has the ear of top European lawmakers and officials who are supposed to guide Europe's pandemic response.

They are supposed to decide how Europe will approach the waiver at the World Trade Organisation(WTO). A watchdog recently accessed data and numbers on the meetings of European commissioners and it found top decision-makers in Europe were trapped in the echo chamber of big pharma.

From March 2020 to May 2021, European Commissioners have met with pharmaceutical lobbyists 140 times. In contrast, they met producers of genetic drugs 18 times and they hardly met advocates of patent waivers.

NGOs that support the cause of patent waivers have got just one high-level meeting in 14 months. 

Decision makers are only engaging with lobbyists and top guys the elected officials like the president of European Commission Ursula von der Leyen and her core team including the European Union's health commissioner and commissioners for trade, international partnerships and the single market.

Even major medical humanitarian organisations can't get through to them. Doctors Without Borders had written to the European vice president for trade and the commissioner for health.

They reached out twice. In a statement to WION, Doctors Without Borders confirmed that their requests for a meeting have been denied.

The leadership that's supposed to discuss patent waivers is only listening to big pharma. They don't even engage with the other side. The result is that the European Union is the biggest roadblock before vaccine patent waivers.

The bloc has been holding back India's proposal at the WTO.

In America, pharma lobbyists have been enlisting lawmakers to put pressure on the government. In Europe, they have been dictating lawmakers. Their aim is clear - block patent waivers.