Where Iowans in Congress stand on COVID-19 vaccine patent waivers

The battle to contain COVID-19 “is in many ways a race between vaccines and variants,” in the words of Canadian Dr. Christopher Labos. Every infected person gives the coronavirus another opportunity to mutate, and some of those mutations are especially dangerous, either because they spread more easily or cause more severe illness.

In the United States, where vaccine supplies are plentiful, low vaccination rates are increasingly linked to hesitancy rather than access problems. But COVID-19 vaccines are in short supply across much of the world. While the U.S. and some other wealthy countries are donating vaccines to poorer countries, the donation program will cover shots for at most 20 percent of the population in recipient countries.

The highly transmissible Delta variant, which is becoming dominant in the U.S. and Iowa and prompted Israel to reintroduce some mask mandates, was first identified in India, where vaccines are not widely available. Uncontrolled outbreaks anywhere will cause preventable loss of life and increase the risk of a variant emerging that can defeat current vaccines.

For that reason, more than 100 developing countries have asked the World Trade Organization to temporarily waive intellectual property rights for “health products and technologies” related to the COVID-19 pandemic, including vaccines. The Trump administration opposed the waiver, but the Biden administration endorsed the proposal in early May. The pharmaceutical industry has been running an advertising campaign against the policy.

Iowa’s members of Congress have split along party lines.

“WE MUST MAKE VACCINES, TESTING, AND TREATMENTS AVAILABLE EVERYWHERE IF WE ARE GOING TO CRUSH THE VIRUS ANYWHERE”

Representative Cindy Axne (IA-03) was among 110 House Democrats who signed a letter in late April urging President Joe Biden to reverse his predecessor’s policy. Excerpts:

From a global public health perspective, this waiver is vital to ensuring sufficient volume of and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics around the world. The TRIPS [Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights] waiver is also essential to ensure all global economies, including the United States’ economy, can recover from the pandemic and thrive. Simply put, we must make vaccines, testing, and treatments available everywhere if we are going to crush the virus anywhere. […]

Unless countries cooperate and share medical technology, there simply will not be sufficient supply of vaccines, diagnostics, and treatments for many countries – particularly developing countries – to effectively fight COVID-19. Some countries may not have access to widespread COVID-19 vaccination until as late as 2024 without large increases in production.1 This not only would cause additional, unnecessary loss of life, but it would also imperil the vaccination efforts now underway. Emerging COVID-19 variants show more resistance to vaccines and are more infectious. They spotlight why time is of the essence: further delay in developing immunity around the world will only lead to faster and stronger mutations. Our globalized economy cannot recover if only parts of the world are vaccinated. In the end, the TRIPS waiver will help us all.

The Democrats’ letter also argued, “Expanding vaccine access to developing nations is not only a moral obligation, it is economically effective.”

Recent data show that nationalistic vaccine policies will cost the world an estimated $1.2 trillion per year.3 […] On the other hand, for each dollar wealthy nations invest in getting vaccines to the poorest countries, they will receive approximately $4.80 in return. Congress has paid industry giants billions of taxpayer dollars to expedite research and development of COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics. The American people deserve the best possible return on that investment, not corporate monopolies that restrict access and threaten to extend the length of the pandemic.

Axne has not highlighted her support for suspending intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines in public statements about the pandemic. But the letter from Congressional Democrats is believed to have helped persuade Biden to change U.S. policy. The president’s health advisers were themselves “divided” on the temporary waiver this spring.

All of the Republicans who represent Iowa in the U.S. House or Senate oppose the policy.

PLAN COULD “END OUR PROGRESS IN DEVELOPING COVID-19 VACCINES AND TREATMENTS”

The pharmaceutical industry contends that waiving patents on COVID-19 vaccines will “do nothing to help save lives globally” and “could have a damaging impact for American patients.”

To my knowledge, Senator Joni Ernst was the first Iowan in Congress to take up the industry’s talking points, in a letter she and three fellow Republican senators sent to Biden in early March. Ernst did not announce this effort in a press release, but Senator Mike Lee published the letter on his official website. Excerpts:

We write to ask that you protect American intellectual property against a scheme that would crush American jobs, end our progress in developing COVID-19 vaccines and treatments, and worsen the pandemic. […]

By destroying the intellectual property of every American company that has worked on COVID-19 vaccines and treatments we would be ending the progress–started under Operation Warp Speed–that led to the fastest development of life-saving vaccines in history. […]

Waiving all rights to intellectual property would end the innovation pipeline and stop the development of new vaccines or boosters to address variants in the virus. It also wouldn’t increase the supply of vaccines because of the tremendous time and resources needed to build new manufacturing plants and acquire the knowhow to produce these complex medicines.

Ernst has also said she supports a House Republican effort to block the Biden administration from waiving the vaccine patents.

Some experts agree that in the short term, waiving COVID-19 vaccine patents won’t dramatically increase supply. But that doesn’t mean the policy has no value. Stat News reported in early May,

Prashant Yadav, a supply chain expert and senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, said the biggest barrier to increasing the global vaccine supply is a lack of raw materials and facilities that manufacture the billions of doses the world needs. Temporarily suspending some intellectual property, as the U.S. proposes to do, would have little effect on those problems, he said.

“My take is: By itself, it will not get us much benefit in increased manufacturing capacity,” Yadav said. “But as part of a larger package, it can.”

HINSON, GRASSLEY CO-SPONSORED BILL TO PROTECT PHARMA PATENTS

Two days after the Biden administration announced the new policy on coronavirus vaccine patents, House Republicans introduced a bill hat would prohibit the U.S. Trade Representative from using any appropriated funds “for supporting a measure at the World Trade Organization waiving certain intellectual property rights.” The legislation asserted,

Predictable, transparent, and enforceable intellectual property rights have been a cornerstone of establishing the United States as an innovation hub before and during the pandemic. […]

Proper and effective intellectual property rights enable the greatest access to life-saving cures and treatments through voluntary licensing agreements and other valuable partnerships already being established between life sciences innovators and vaccine manufacturers across the globe. […]

Inadequate United States leadership in defending intellectual property rights internationally invites foreign competitor governments, including the Government of the People’s Republic of China, to take advantage of weak global protections, thereby undermining United States investment and leadership in the life sciences.

Republican Representative Ashley Hinson (IA-01) was one of fifteen original co-sponsors. Staff for Iowa’s other House Republicans, Mariannette Miller-Meeks (IA-02) and Randy Feenstra (IA-04) did not respond to emails seeking to clarify why they did not co-sponsor the bill.

Senator Chuck Grassley was one of four Senate Republicans to attach his name to companion legislation in the Senate. Staff for Ernst did not respond to Bleeding Heartland’s inquiries about why she didn’t sign on to the legislation, given her comments endorsing its premise.

SENATORS DECRY “DISASTROUS DECISION” TO “SUPPORT INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY THEFT”

Both Grassley and Ernst were among eighteen Republican senators who wrote on May 19 to Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai. That letter objected to Biden’s “disastrous decision to support the waiver of the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights or TRIPS agreement in relation to the prevention, containment, or treatment of COVID-19.” The senators portrayed the policy as a gift to foreign adversaries. Excerpts:

Unfortunately, almost immediately after these vaccines were proven to work, China and other countries which regularly steal American intellectual property—like India and South Africa— began urging the World Trade Organization to grant a TRIPS waiver. These nations are falsely claiming that granting such a waiver would speed the development of new vaccine capacity. […]

It is not surprising that China, India, and South Africa want to steal our intellectual property and medical technology. What is surprising is that an American president, especially one who claims to be a “jobs” president, would force American companies to give their medical technology and manufacturing processes to foreign adversaries like China. Simply put, the Biden Administration’s support for a TRIPS waiver puts America’s interests last and China’s interests first.

For some reason, Ernst did not highlight this letter in a news release. However, Grassley’s office put out a statement on the effort by Republican senators “to reverse the Biden administration’s decision to give U.S. COVID intellectual property to China.”

FEENSTRA, MILLER-MEEKS JOIN CHORUS

Dozens of House Republicans, including Iowa’s Miller-Meeks and Feenstra, co-signed a May 19 letter urging Biden “in the strongest possible terms to rescind your support” for waiving IP protections for COVID-19 vaccines. The letter echoed the arguments pharmaceutical companies were making in paid advertisements targeting the Biden administration.

The real challenges in fighting the pandemic include tackling major logistical, manufacturing, and healthcare delivery hurdles. Weakening IP rules will not solve any of these challenges.The United States Trade Representative’s (USTR) announcement is deeply disappointing and will do nothing to accelerate the global distribution of COVID-19vaccines. Quite the contrary, waiving the IP protections would only serve to undermine innovation and make it even more difficult for industry to respond to both the current pandemic and future health emergencies. […]

Importantly, the proposal also threatens American jobs and undermines the long-term competitiveness of our biopharmaceutical industry by allowing countries like China to profit from our innovation.The Chinese government, as part of its Made in China 2025 Plan, is intent on expanding its domestic production of biomedical products, largely through theft of American technology and innovation. Indeed, according to both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security, the Chinese government has been engaged in a sophisticated and wide-ranging effort to steal American COVID-19 vaccine research –particularly mRNA technology, an area in which China is lagging far behind. And yet, even as the FBI and DHS investigate and express concerns about China’s action to acquire this information and technology, USTR has proposed voluntarily gifting it to China.

In June, Miller-Meeks and a House GOP colleague introduced their own resolution to protect patents on COVID-19 vaccines. From a Miller-Meeks news release:

“Waiving the IP for the COVID-19 vaccine would destroy billions of dollars in U.S. IP by handing it over to countries like Russia and China. Giving away our IP will also set a precedent for future pandemics and deter pharmaceutical investment,” said Miller-Meeks. “If we have learned anything from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is that we now understand the importance of having our private sector partners working with us to prepare for future emergencies. As a doctor and member of both the Homeland Security Committee and Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, I understand the importance of protecting our IP to support our healthcare system and bolster our domestic supply chains.”

Hinson was one of nineteen original co-sponsors of this resolution. Like most GOP bills, it’s dead on arrival in the Democratic-controlled House.

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