Last summer, President Joe Biden made a promise to me and to the American people.
While interviewing then-candidate Biden, I asked, “If the US 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 lifesaving vaccines?” In response, Biden did not hesitate, equivocate, or mince his words. “Absolutely, positively. This is the only humane thing in the world to do,” Biden answered. He went on, concluding, “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.”
Ten months after that interview, American innovation has delivered health and safety to the people of this country, and now Biden has the opportunity to reverse the course set by Donald Trump and steer the global community down a more just and humane path. Biden can make good on his pledge and help protect billions of people around the world from this deadly virus.
The fight against the pandemic is far from over, which is why Biden has such a great capacity to make a difference. Thousands of people are dying of Covid-19 each day in India, where medicine, oxygen, and ventilators have run short. And fatalities from the virus are higher than ever in Turkey, Iran, and Brazil. If we do not help vaccinate the world, vaccine resistant variants will likely come roaring back into the United States. So, as Biden correctly told me, it is in our own interest to lift vaccine protections. But it is also a moral imperative. The dreams of people in other countries are no less real than ours. Their love is no less strong. Their lives are no less worthy.
On Wednesday, Biden faces a critical juncture. That day, May 5, governments from around the globe will gather at the World Trade Organization. They will ask America to waive the rules that are blocking them from making enough vaccines to protect their people. The rules in question are governed by TRIPS—the WTO Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights. TRIPS requires governments to guarantee corporations’ patents and other intellectual property rights, including monopoly control over the production of vaccines and other medicines.
Because of these restrictions, not enough doses of the vaccine are being manufactured, despite the incredible industrial capacity of countries like India. This pharma-created shortage will result in the deaths of millions more people from Covid-19. A waiver would loosen corporations’ grip and allow countries and companies around the world to increase supply of the vaccine and treatments. A waiver would save lives.
As with too many global humanitarian crises, past is prologue. While a student at Yale Law School in 2008, years before I was diagnosed with and paralyzed by ALS, I was part of a student group fighting to improve access to essential medicines in poor countries around the world. The impetus for the group’s formation was the HIV/AIDS epidemic that in the 1990s was spreading rapidly through sub-Saharan Africa. Scientists at Yale developed an early AIDS treatment, the anti-retroviral drug called stavudine, but that the university later sold the patent to the multinational pharma corporation Bristol Myers Squibb. BMS in turn charged exorbitant prices for the medicine, leaving it out of reach for many millions of patients in low- and middle-income countries.
Students lobbied along with humanitarian organizations and successfully forced BMS to agree not to enforce their patent in South Africa. It was a monumental victory. By allowing generic companies to manufacture stavudine and other crucial therapies, it led to a 95 percent reduction in the price of AIDS medicine in Africa.
Now, once again, corporate greed is excluding countless people in poorer countries from access to a lifesaving solution. Pharmaceutical corporations received billions of dollars in public, taxpayer funding from Operation Warp Speed, and relied on the scientific research and innovation of people from around the world—from Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci, Turkish immigrants to Germany who developed the Pfizer formula, to Katalin Kariko, a Hungarian immigrant to the United States whose decades-long research into mRNA laid the foundation for both the Pfizer and NIH-Moderna shots. These people do not work to make billions of dollars. They work to save lives. The vaccine came from the best of humanity, and it must return to the world with the same intention, with access for all.
For those in our nation’s capital, there will be a rally in front of the White House Wednesday calling on the president to sign the waiver. Join if you can. The rest of us can call and write our lawmakers. We must all raise our voices. Past battles, including for access to the HIV/AIDS medicine, prove we can win.
Having ALS, a terminal illness, has made it clear to me what is controllable in this life and what is not. Diseases and illness will arise. They are an inevitable part of being mortal. But the ability to provide access to a vaccine once it is developed is within our power, people power. Access is a deliberate, human choice.
If any American leader of our lifetime has understood the value of a single life, and the deep pain of loss, it is Biden. But he also knows the beauty of salvation and the joy life can bring. In the marrow of his bones, I know Biden understands that the international laws barring vaccine access are wrong. I hope he carries his humanity with him on Wednesday. I hope Biden answers the world’s plea.