SVG Sprites

Common Dreams: Experts Say J&J-Merck Deal—Though Welcome Step—Does Not Get to ‘Heart of the Matter’ on Vaccine Apartheid

In response to the Biden administration’s brokering of a deal wherein pharmaceutical giant Merck will utilize excess manufacturing capacity to produce the coronavirus vaccine of its longtime competitor, Johnson & Johnson, public health advocates said Tuesday that the partnership—though welcome—reveals how global vaccine supplies could be significantly increased if patent monopolies were dissolved and the technology controlled by Big Pharma shared worldwide.

“Factories across the world are lying idle when they could be producing hundreds of millions of vaccines this year—but they can’t because Big Pharma is refusing to share the know-how.”
—Nick Dearden, Global Justice Now

President Joe Biden on Tuesday will formally announce the deal, which has the potential to boost the supply of Johnson & Johnson’s recently authorized single-shot vaccine, The Washington Post reported.

While Merck, one of the world’s biggest vaccine makers, failed to develop its own Covid-19 shot, the company will dedicate two of its U.S. facilities to producing its rivals’ shots, “perhaps even doubling what Johnson & Johnson could make on its own,” according to two senior administration officials who spoke to the newspaper about the new arrangement on the condition of anonymity.

Though the agreement was heralded by many as “huge” news and a positive development that would increase production at a key time to help fight the pandemic, advocates for broader access and an end to corporate control of vaccines both in the U.S. and around the world said the deal is also revealing.

“This partnership with Merck and J&J lays bare what we’ve known all along: there is excess manufacturing capacity in the U.S. and around the world for manufacturing lifesaving vaccines,” Margarida Jorge, campaign director at Lower Drug Prices Now, said in a statement.

“But instead of doing everything we can to get these vaccines developed using taxpayer dollars into people’s arms as quickly as possible,” said Jorge, “our elected leaders are choosing to allow a few Big Pharma companies to maintain their monopoly control over these drugs in order to maximize their profits.”

“The Trump administration and Congress could have prevented the problem in the first place by refusing to grant exclusive patents for Covid medicines developed with taxpayer funding,” she added. “But President Biden can still scale up production to meet global demand by using existing authorities.”

Merck will produce J&J #CoronavirusVaccine. Partnerships are a great way to boost supplies & overcome shortfalls. Better yet, @JoeBiden should encourage US vaccine companies to transfer their technology to LMICs. Serum Institute of India, e.g., could help vaccinate the world.

— Lawrence Gostin (@LawrenceGostin) March 2, 2021

Jorge’s comments come in the wake of progressives’ demands for the Biden administration to invest in the ramping up of global manufacturing capacity and to stop derailing a popular knowledge-sharing effort supported by more than 100 countries that would make it possible to disseminate vaccine recipes around the world.

Like his predecessor, Biden has continued to block India and South Africa’s proposal for an emergency waiver of the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), which mandates the enforcement of patent protections, allowing pharmaceutical companies to monopolize control over scientific knowledge and technology even though they are publicly funded products.

Nick Dearden, director of Global Justice Now, told Common Dreams that the White House-brokered deal between Johnson & Johnson and Merck “could be the beginning of a concerted effort on the part of rich countries to face down the rapidly building pressure to override patents on Covid-19 medicines.”

“It couldn’t be clearer that the Big Pharma patent model is failing us—failing to provide the medicines we need fairly or in sufficient supply,” Dearden added. “Only this morning, we learned that factories across the world are lying idle when they could be producing hundreds of millions of vaccines this year—but they can’t because Big Pharma is refusing to share the know-how.”

As the Associated Press reported Monday, factory owners on three different continents “say they could start producing hundreds of millions of Covid-19 vaccines on short notice if only they had the blueprints and technical know-how.”

“But that knowledge belongs to the large pharmaceutical companies who have produced the first three vaccines authorized by countries including Britain, the European Union, and the U.S.—Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca,” AP noted. “The factories are all still awaiting responses.”

If blueprints were shared, “then immediately overnight every continent will have dozens of companies who would be able to produce these vaccines,” said Abdul Muktadir, whose Incepta plant in Bangladesh already makes vaccines against hepatitis, flu, meningitis, rabies, tetanus, and measles.

In response to the manufacturing partnership negotiated by the Biden administration, Dearden told Common Dreams that “using spare Merck capacity to produce the J&J vaccine is welcome, but it’s still not getting to the heart of the matter.”

“It’s good these two companies will be working together. It would be even better if the technology were shared with qualified manufacturers around the world to produce as much as possible to protect people worldwide now and in the future.”
—Peter Maybarduk, Public Citizen

“This technology should not be the property of these giant corporations,” he said. “They should not have the final say on who produces these life-saving vaccines and on what terms. Nor should they decide, in effect, what order people are vaccinated in.”

As Dearden pointed out, “most countries in the Global South are demanding patents be overridden. It’s really obscene that those countries that have already bought the majority of vaccines available this year are saying, ‘No, no, that’s not necessary, the system works just fine.'”

“In fact, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is a perfect candidate to be a people’s vaccine,” Dearden continued. “It promises to work well across the world, it’s one-shot, and it was developed with huge amounts of public funding.”

“This research should never have been privatized,” he added. “Biden could make a real difference here—by dropping U.S. opposition to the patent waiver proposal at the WTO, and by unilaterally overriding patents on the J&J medicine and declaring it a people’s vaccine.”

Peter Maybarduk, director of Public Citizen’s Access to Medicines program, agreed that the deal brokered by Biden “is positive and that we can go further.” He told Common Dreams that “we will have to be much more ambitious in order to vaccinate the entire world.”

“It’s good these two companies will be working together,” said Maybarduk. “It would be even better if the technology were shared with qualified manufacturers around the world to produce as much as possible to protect people worldwide now and in the future.”

According to Jorge at Lower Drug Prices Now, “This path would ultimately mean less profits for the corporations that currently hold the patents.”

But as Brook Baker, senior policy analyst at Health GAP and professor of law at Northeastern University, said last week in response to a reporter’s question about the impact of temporarily suspending the WTO’s intellectual property rules on the profit margins of patent holders, the TRIPS waiver doesn’t mean that pharmaceutical corporations won’t be well-compensated. Besides, Baker added, “we should recognize that Pfizer and Moderna are already poised to earn billions this year even after receiving billions in public subsidies.”

Mustaqeem De Gama, a South African diplomat involved in the WTO discussions, told AP that “people are literally dying because we cannot agree on intellectual property rights.”

Ultimately, progressives have argued, declining to share vaccine recipes with the world is not only morally indefensible but also self-defeating insofar as it prolongs the deadly Covid-19 pandemic, enabling the virus to mutate and ensuring that global economic hardship continues.

“To end the greatest public health crisis of our lifetimes,” Jorge concluded, “our elected leaders must choose to prioritize the health and economic well-being of people over Big Pharma’s profits.”

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