As new coronavirus cases surge across India, overwhelming hospitals and crematories, calls are growing louder for wealthy countries to stop hoarding excess supply of COVID-19 vaccines and to loosen intellectual property restrictions preventing more countries from making their own vaccines. Democracy Now! speaks with economist Jayati Ghosh and Congressmember Ro Khanna of California.
AMY GOODMAN: We continue on what is happening in India and how it can be dealt with, particularly around the issue of vaccine apartheid and vaccine equity. As the death toll mounts in India, pressure is mounting for the U.S. and other wealthy countries to put an end to vaccine hoarding and share their supply with India and the rest of the world. Top White House adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci addressed the crisis in India, saying, “The only way that you’re going to adequately respond to a global pandemic is by having a global response, and a global response means equity throughout the world.”
Calls have also been growing for wealthy members of the World Trade Organization to waive intellectual property rights related to COVID-19 vaccines. Earlier this week, Democratic lawmakers and organizations working on this issue held a news conference to deliver a petition, signed by over 2 million people, urging President Biden and the WTO to grant the waiver. This is Senator Bernie Sanders.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: To me, it seems that this is not really a debatable issue. We have the tools to save human lives, and those tools should be readily available to all people. Poor people in Africa, in Asia, Latin America and throughout the world have as much right to be protected from the virus, have as much right to live, as people in wealthier nations. To me, you know, this is not a huge debate. This is common human morality.
AMY GOODMAN: The WTO meets again next week to reconsider the waiver.
For more, we’re joined by Jayati Ghosh, economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She was previously an economics professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India, where she taught for 35 years.
Thanks so much for joining us, Professor Ghosh. Let’s talk about the causes of this catastrophe in India right now and what vaccine equity looks like, and particularly what the wealthiest country in the world, the United States, should be doing right now.
JAYATI GHOSH: Well, the catastrophe in India, I would say right now, is actually a man-made catastrophe, because it really reflects a government that had become casual, irresponsible and, in fact, actively engaged in superspreader events. We have had, as was mentioned earlier, massive gatherings, political rallies, addressed by the prime minister and other political leaders, in which all guidelines were flouted.
We have had the bringing forward by a full year of a very major Hindu festival on the banks of the Ganges, at which 4 million people participated over the course of three weeks, which, again, is a huge superspreader. And we haven’t even seen the full impact of that. That is going — those people are returning to their homes carrying this disease with them. So we’re going to see much more of that in the rural areas, where there’s absolutely no rural infrastructure for health.
So, I think we haven’t seen the worst of it yet. It is beyond horror, what is happening. I have friends and colleagues who have died for lack of oxygen. It’s unbelievable, what is happening. Yet, this is not yet the worst.
Obviously, what needs to be done as soon as possible is vaccinate as many people as can be done. There is a shortage of vaccines in India. There is a shortage of vaccines globally. But this is an artificial shortage. This need not happen. There is enough production capacity for vaccines in the world today to vaccinate 60% of the population by the end of this year, the global population, if we waive the intellectual property rights and transfer the knowledge for making these vaccines to all the different producers in different parts of the world who are willing to make it. It’s only these intellectual property rights and this protection of knowledge, which was publicly subsidized, which was actually created by massive public subsidies and prior public research, this — if we waive these and allow the knowledge, we will actually be able to vaccinate significant part of the population and do something about arresting this pandemic. Every day that we do not do this is more lives lost.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Professor Ghosh, of course, India is home to the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, the Serum Institute. How is it that the institute has failed to produce larger numbers of vaccines for domestic use?
JAYATI GHOSH: Well, every company has its own manufacturing capacity. And they have done as much as they can. But it’s ridiculous to expect one company to meet the needs of 1.3 billion people or, in fact, the global population, because they have also many export commitments, to COVAX and to other areas. You really have to expand the production. You have to license other producers. This is actually — it’s a no-brainer. It’s so obvious that you cannot rely on the manufacturing capacities of just a few companies.
And this is the problem that has actually plagued the entire attitude to vaccine development and production in this pandemic. A few companies have got the rights, and they are holding onto those rights, and they are only producing themselves. They must share this knowledge, and they must allow other producers, because that’s the only way we’re going to confront the crisis. You can’t blame one company and say, “You’re not producing enough.” It’s impossible for one company to produce enough.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, we already know this, right? I mean, Biden announced this historic deal between Merck, which didn’t make a vaccine, and Johnson & Johnson, just so that those vaccines could get out there. That was a while ago. But I wanted to ask you, Professor Ghosh, about this back-and-forth. It was an interview with Medicare for All activist, the disability rights activist Ady Barkan. During the 2020 presidential campaign, then-candidate Joe Biden vowed to not let intellectual property barriers prevent other countries from mass-producing COVID vaccines. This is part of their exchange.
ADY BARKAN: If the U.S. discovers a vaccine first, will you commit to sharing that technology with other countries? And will you ensure there are no patents to stand in the way of other countries and companies mass-producing those life-saving vaccines?
JOE BIDEN: Absolutely, positively. This is the only humane thing in the world to do. Were I president now — and I propose we do it now — set aside $25 billion to put together a plan now — now, this instant — how we will distribute that vaccine when it’s made available, to guarantee it gets to every American and access is made available to the rest of the world. … So, the answer is yes. Yes, yes, yes. And it’s not only a good thing to do, it’s overwhelmingly in our interest to do it, as well. Overwhelmingly.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that was candidate Biden. Is he living up to this promise, Professor Ghosh?
JAYATI GHOSH: So far, unfortunately, not. The U.S. has continued to oppose the TRIPS waiver in the WTO. I am hoping that the pressure now and the realization that he was absolutely correct in what he said as candidate, that that should actually make the U.S. drop this opposition. It’s really just 14 or 16 countries in the world, the rich countries that are home to Big Pharma companies, that are preventing this from happening. Every other member of the WTO is supporting this. So, we really just need them to live up to what they obviously believed in even a few months ago.
It’s actually not just a moral imperative — of course, it is — but it is sensible. If you do not contain this virus, you’re going to get these new mutant variants that were talked about, and you will have to have the whole process over again in your own countries. So it’s in the interests of rich country populations to suspend these patents right now.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: I’d like to bring in Congressmember Ro Khanna into the conversation. He has been leading calls for the U.S. to do more to help countries like India, including to push for this waiver to the TRIPS Agreement.
Good morning, Congressman Khanna. Could you talk about what’s happening and what you believe the U.S. needs to do now?
REP. RO KHANNA: Well, thank you, Nermeen.
And Professor Ghosh is absolutely right. We have to license this technology so that other countries can produce their vaccine. The argument that the manufacturing capacity isn’t there is simply not accurate. I was speaking to the ambassador of India yesterday. He said that there are 10 production sites ready to manufacture this vaccine. Obviously, we need to invest more in transferring the technical know-how and further building the production capacity, but the main thing is they need to have the vaccine recipe, the formula, to be able to do this.
One misconception is this idea that if we have the TRIPS waiver, somehow Pfizer or Moderna won’t get paid. That is false. This is not asking these companies to give away their IP for free. What we’re saying is that they need to license it. Compulsory licensing would require compensation. It’s just that they would be able to use the vaccine. Currently, it’s important to understand, they’re not allowing manufacturers to use the vaccine, even manufacturers willing to pay for it. And what we’re saying is, “No, they need to be required to license it.”
AMY GOODMAN: So, you’re close to — pretty much, to the leadership now, the Democratic leadership, in both houses, also in the White House. What is happening? You heard that interaction where candidate Biden said he absolutely understands this. And that cooperation is happening to develop vaccines in the U.S., like Merck and Johnson & Johnson. So, when will this happen internationally, in terms of the U.S.?
REP. RO KHANNA: Well, several of us have made it very clear to the administration that we need to do it, we need to be for a TRIPS waiver. You’ve had prominent voices, like Joseph Stiglitz, take to The Washington Post op-ed page. Public Citizen has been advocating for this.
I think the concern is that these companies — Pfizer, Moderna — have so much power over the distribution of vaccines in the United States, the production of vaccines, that there is some concern, among some corners in the administration, that no one wants to rock the boat with these companies, because, obviously, we want to make sure everything goes smoothly in the United States. But I believe if President Biden gets on the phone with these CEOs and makes the case to them, that they will have to comply. They will continue the production in the United States, and they will actually see that it’s in their long-term strategic interest, with the markets in India and the rest of the world, to, at the very least, temporarily suspend the IP requirements and share the vaccine formula.
AMY GOODMAN: And, I mean, you have four Indian American congressmembers, right? Ro Khanna, yourself. You have Pramila Jayapal of Washington, just went home, her family infected with COVID, came back to this country, said she’s demanding this. You’ve got Ami Bera, who is a doctor from California. And you’ve got Congressmember Krishnamoorthi of Illinois demanding that this happen.
REP. RO KHANNA: Well, Nermeen, it highlighted to me the importance of representation. I actually never really fully appreciated it until this crisis, but you will see that our voices were one of the first in Congress sounding the alarm of what was happening in India, largely because either having family there or representing constituencies with lots of people who had family there. And I’m glad that the president and Secretary Blinken have taken action now to send oxygen, to send PPE, to send essential equipment that India needs. But a lot of it was in response to the activism and the early voices in Congress.
Now the key issue is this TRIPS waiver, is having the president call these pharmaceutical companies and say, “You’re going to get paid. You’re going to get compensated. In fact, this is in your long-term commercial interest. But you can’t be refusing — you can’t be refusing to license your vaccines.” And that’s what’s going on. And we should be absolutely clear about this. It’s not that they’re asking for money. It’s not that they’re asking for a profit. It’s that they are not willing to license their vaccines. Even making money, even making a profit, they’re not willing to let other countries manufacture it. And that’s just cruel.
AMY GOODMAN: We have to break. Then we’re going to go to what happened last night, this historic joint session of Congress that President Biden just addressed. I want to thank our guests, doctor — I want to thank Jayati Ghosh, economics professor at University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Ro Khanna, Democratic congressmember from California, vice chair of the India Caucus in the House, and ask you both to stay with this.
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