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Biden’s New Covid Czar Previously Dismissed Proposal to Expand Global Access to Covid Vaccines, Treatments, and Tests
Dr. Ashish Jha has done (according to him, pro bono) work for Pfizer consultancy firm Albright Stonebridge, and has dismissed efforts to open up intellectual property for all Covid-related products.
Biden’s new Covid czar, Dr. Ashish Jha, has been a prominent public health expert on cable news and in his capacity of Dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. He’s promoted sensible policies like widespread vaccination, social distancing, public funding for outreach, and monitoring of emerging contagions and other measures standard in Democratic Party—and basic public health—conventional thinking. But a closer inspection of his public comments and professional associations shows he has been dismissive of an important public health measure: suspending intellectual property rules in order to expand access to Covid vaccines, treatments, and diagnostics. This measure, called a TRIPS waiver, has particularly rankled the pharmaceutical industry, and his opposition to it should be a red flag, alongside his track record of cozying up to corporate interests, namely pro-profit vaccine companies.
In one public appearance on Ezra Klein’s popular New York Times podcast in March 2021, Dr. Jha dismissed the push for a TRIPS waiver at the World Trade Organization. This proposal was first introduced by India and South Africa in October 2020, and since has been backed by over 400 progressive, human rights and public health organizations, 400 EU MEPs, over 120 members of U.S. congress, dozens of countries from the Global South, and countless activists. It calls for the lifting of key intellectual property rules under the WTO agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, in order to allow the Global South access to cheaper, generic Covid products, like antivirals, tests, and vaccines. The measure is aimed at helping put a dent in tremendous global inequalities in access to these life-saving Covid products: Just 19% of the population in Africa has received at least one dose of a vaccine, while in the United States and Canada, 78% have. While Biden said in May he would reverse the Trump administration’s objections to the proposal, the administration has dragged its feet on aggressively pushing for a waiver, and recently struck a tentative compromise on such a waiver that activists say may do more harm than good, because it excludes tests and treatments, imposes geographic limitations (including a carveout for China), and introduces new barriers to the production of generics. Proponents of a real, robust TRIPS waiver are eager to get more meaningful support from the Biden administration, given the incredible influence the United States wields at the WTO. (The tentative compromise is not a done deal yet, and activists are still pushing for a better outcome.)
In the March 2021 interview, Klein asked Jha, “What are the biggest chokeholds in getting low income countries vaccinated? Is it supply? Is it distribution? Is it money? When you say we need to take this more seriously, what does that mean?”
Jha’s response is worth examining at length:
So it’s not just that we’re hoarding, but we’re doing a little bit of that. It’s we’ve got to figure out how to make a lot more vaccine doses than we are making. And the one sort of simple, simplistic thing that people often say, “Oh, this is all about intellectual property and we should just take these patents and make them public.” It’s not about that. There aren’t that many companies that can make these things. They’re actually complicated to make. If you think about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, it’s a live virus. It’s an adenovirus that you’ve injected some RNA actually into, and it’s got to be done incredibly well.
There are companies that can do it. Merck can do it, which is why Merck is now going to make J&J vaccines. I think that’s great. But there really is a problem here of production. And what needs to happen, in my mind — I mean, we do need more money. But I think lots of people will be able to — will be willing to throw money at the problem and we have plenty of money to do that.
This claim—that the TRIPS waiver doesn’t matter because there aren’t facilities in the Global South that can produce vaccines—is a key talking point purveyed by the pharmaceutical industry to discredit advocates of lifting intellectual property rules. This talking point sends the message that going through the headache of passing a TRIPS waiver is a waste of time, because it won’t do any good. Jha sounds a lot like Stéphane Bancel, chief executive of Moderna, who said in May 2021, “There is no idle mRNA manufacturing capacity in the world. This is a new technology, you cannot go hire people who know how to make mRNA — those people don’t exist.” Or he sounds like pharmaceutical industry trade group PhRMA, which represents Pfizer, along with other companies. “Only a few facilities in the world perform some of the critical steps needed to manufacture mRNA vaccines,” the organization said in March. It’s the perfect talking point, because it allows whoever espouses it to sound caring but better informed. It’s the equivalent of a pat on the heads of global health advocates: I know you care, but you don’t understand how the world works. The patronizing air of this message is compounded by the fact that it plays to racist assumptions that the Global South is not capable of making sophisticated pharmaceutical goods.
But here’s the thing: This claim has been utterly disproven. It’s totally false. In December, researchers with Access IBSA project and Médecins Sans Frontières identified 120 facilities in Africa, Asia, and Latin America that could start manufacturing mRNA vaccines if Pfizer and Moderna would only show them how. And a separate New York Times investigation published in November identified 10 facilities in India, Brazil, Thailand, South Africa, Argentina, and Indonesia that are strong candidates for producing mRNA vaccines. In other words, if governments would only wrest the intellectual property, trade secrets, and know-how away from these companies, and freely give that knowledge away, facilities across the Global South, in regions with far less access to vaccines, could produce vaccines themselves. The talking point that Jha and others have espoused is a lie meant to protect industry profits over millions of lives. For context, 4.98 million people have died world-wide of Covid-19 since the TRIPS waiver was first proposed. This isn’t to say all of these lives would have been saved with a quick scale up of quality vaccines, but the number would certainly be less.
It’s concerning that Biden’s new Covid czar would traffic in this false assertion, though he certainly would not be the first powerful official to do it (see Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron). It is important to note that the person Jha is replacing, Jeffrey Zients, is reviled among public health activists for his numerous failures, including his stealth obstruction of a TRIPS waiver (though he has claimed to support it), his corporate-friendly bent, and his failure to address basic things like shortages in tests and masks. Just a week before he resigned, activists held a protest at his house, where they gave him a mock report card that included an “F” for “supporting vaccine access in low and middle income countries” and an “A+” for "protecting Pharma profits."
While activists may be rightfully celebrating that Zients is gone, there are reasons to keep a close eye on Jha, who is taking the helm at a time the Biden administration, and Congress overall, seems to have largely given up on tackling Covid. In his appearance, Jha did not disclose he was, since summer 2020, a senior advisor to corporate consultancy firm Albright Stonebridge Group, a “strategic advisory firm” which counts among its clients Pfizer and Merck, both of which have lobbied aggressively against the intellectual property waiver. According to the Intercept, “[Albright Stonebridge], which represents Pfizer, specializes in helping large corporations understand and influence international trade policy, including on intellectual property.” When confronted over this conflict of interest, Jha claimed he was paid “$0” for his consulting and was doing it pro bono—a claim we will soon be able to verify, when Jha ostensibly releases his public disclosures upon entering the Biden White House. But whether or not he was paid, a formal relationship with an entity that does business with these companies is still meaningful, and the public deserves to know what exactly Dr. Jha did for Albright Stonebridge Group, and how that may impact his outlook on the pandemic.
And whatever Jha’s orientation, there are reasons to be concerned that the role itself could bode poorly for the future pandemic response. In its coverage of the shift in czar, the New York Times reported that “officials said the federal response would become more of a long-term public health effort and less of a moment-by-moment crisis requiring rapid government action.” The administration seems to be moving away from treating the pandemic as the present crisis it is, and switching to a “long-term” strategy is further evidence that Biden is de-prioritizing crisis response. As the White House warns it is winding down major aspects of the Covid response, like global vaccination donations and "purchases of preventive treatments for immunocompromised," we should keep an eye not only on the person in the role, but the role itself, lest it, too, become a casualty of the climate of defeatism. In the White House’s defense, it has requested $22 billion from Congress, but Republican obstructionism has dried up its funds in the face of the new Omicron BA.2 variant. Yet the Democratic leadership has been too quick to cave to this obstruction, and the Biden administration has failed, from the get go, to deliver the kind of leadership the crisis demanded.
As the White House and both Republican and Democratic leaders pivot “back to normal,” the activist energy behind robust intellectual property waivers has still not let up, especially the demand for generic therapeutics and diagnostics—elements left out entirely from the White House’s latest intellectual property waiver “compromise.” Despite rose-tinted predictions, it’s unlikely Covid will go away any time soon, and neither will the need to confront Big Pharma and corporate lobbyists' efforts to maintain their grip on global public health profiteering.