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The White House Would Have "Seen Omicron Coming" Had It Listened To Global South Countries Crying Out About Vaccine Patent Waivers
The Biden administration says it supports a theoretical TRIPS waiver but has been dragging its feet for seven months. Omicron should be a wake-up call to get serious.
In mid-December, as the Omicron variant surged across the U.S., and an exhausted, scared, impoverished, and bereaved population braced for yet another intensification of a seemingly endless pandemic, Vice President Kamala Harris made a stunning admission: “We didn’t see Omicron coming.”
The remark was made during a wide-ranging interview with the L.A. Times, in which Harris sought to paint the Biden administration’s lack of foresight as in keeping with the scientific community. “We didn’t see Delta coming,” she said. “I think most scientists did not—upon whose advice and direction we have relied—didn’t see Delta coming. We didn’t see Omicron coming. And that’s the nature of what this, this awful virus has been, which as it turns out, has mutations and variants.”
Her statement—delivered with a remarkable lack of self-awareness—offers important insight into why this pandemic is stretching into its third year, with no end in sight. Despite the Biden administration’s supposed fealty to science, and turn away from the outright denialism of the Trump camp, it simply has not listened to repeated and widespread warnings—from scientists, as well as Global South countries that do not have adequate access to vaccines—that failure to vaccinate the world will give rise to new and terrifying variants. Instead, the Biden administration has been living in a bubble of delusion that this pandemic can somehow be stopped without acknowledging—and reversing—the role of the United States in enabling the global spread of Covid.
It has long been widely known that the uncontrolled spread of Covid anywhere in the world would give rise to new and dangerous variants that affect the entire world: Scientists, and even members of Biden’s own administration, have been warning of this since before vaccines were widely available in the United States. As the World Health Organization states plainly on its website, “the virus that causes Covid-19, will continue to evolve as long as it continues to spread. The more that the virus spreads, the more pressure there is for the virus to change. So, the best way to prevent more variants from emerging is to stop the spread of the virus.” This is how Andrea Taylor, the assistant director at Duke Global Health Innovation Center, put it just 11 days after President Biden took office: “This idea that no one is safe until everyone is safe is not just an adage, it is really true.” We’ve already seen this borne out: The Delta variant, which emerged from the catastrophic spread of Covid in India, tore across the world, including the United States, where the death toll shot up significantly.
Despite this reality, low vaccination rates persist in poor and Global South countries: The entire continent of Africa is not expected to be 70% vaccinated until 2024, and Nigeria, the continent’s largest country, has vaccinated just 2% of its population. This contrasts sharply with the vaccination levels of rich countries: Portugal has vaccinated 87% of its population, and the U.S. has vaccinated just over 60% of its population, and is now administering booster shots. Yet, we know that this nationalist response, in which wealthy countries protect their own while leaving huge swaths of populations in other countries to die, will not keep those wealthy countries safe from new variants. Anyone paying attention to this dynamic has been waiting nervously for the next variant to hit. Surely, the administration leading this country should have been on high alert, too.
Some of the sharpest warnings have come from representatives of the Global South countries as they pleaded with rich countries to stop blocking a proposal at the World Trade Organization (WTO) to suspend patent rules so that poor countries can get access to cheaper, generic versions of vaccines as quickly as possible. A warning they’ve been yelling at the top of their lungs for well over a year: The proposal was first put forward by India and South Africa in October 2020, and has since garnered the support of more than 100 countries, most of them from the Global South, along with leading human rights organizations. Over 4 million people internationally have died from Covid since then, but rich countries did everything in their power to not only ignore but muffle those warning about vaccine apartheid. The European Union, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and other countries blocked the TRIPS waiver proposal, and the Biden administration has dragged its feet to the extent to which its nominal support for some theoretical waiver (announced in May) may as well be a “no,” since it is has so far declined to support the actual proposal that Global South countries agree is needed. U.S. media helped intellectual-property-fetishizing ideologies concern troll over production capacity—which turned out to be a total lie—relying on racist assumptions that only rich, majority white countries could have the know-how to produce and scale up vaccines.
At a February meeting of the Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), the WTO body that oversees intellectual property rules, Ambassador Xolelwa Mlumbi-Peter of South Africa “stressed that the single most important priority of the global community is to stop the COVID-19 pandemic, halt its rapid transmission, reduce the risks of variants and reverse the trend of consequential global distress,” according to a summary from the WTO. She said at the time, “We know that this goal is only achievable when everyone, everywhere can access the health technologies they need for COVID-19 detection, prevention, treatment and response. This is a goal that members of the WTO have consistently repeated in their statements. Now more than ever, international cooperation and solidarity are vital to restore global health security, now and in future.”
South Africa’s warnings were disturbingly prescient: It is the country where scientists first detected Omicron, though it’s unclear whether the variant originated there.
The initial patent waiver proposal was then revised by numerous Global South countries, from Mozambique to Indonesia, in May of 2021 to note “the concern of continuous mutations and the emergence of new variants” and the “global need for access as well as the importance of diversifying production and supply.” Just four months into Biden’s presidency, Global South countries were urging world leaders to approve the sharing of vaccine recipes and technical know-how, so that the world could have vaccines and new variants could be prevented. These pleas were issued not long after the first vaccines were available: Imagine if they’d been urgently listened to.
Yet, more than a year after the patent waiver was proposed, it still hasn’t passed, thanks to the inaction of the Biden administration (despite its claims to support a temporary patent waiver of some kind), and outright opposition from the United Kingdom and European Union. The U.S. wields an incredible amount of power at the WTO and could play a big role forcing this proposal through, but has so far been vague and unproductive in negotiations, and has declined to support the India-South Africa proposal as it currently stands. There are some reports that the U.S. could be working out a deal with India, South Africa, and the European Union, but details are unclear, and, meanwhile, people go without vaccines and the virus spreads.
This state of affairs is especially troubling because there is ample evidence that Global South countries have the capacity to start producing mRNA vaccines right now, if Big Pharma would only show them how. As I recently reported for In These Times, researchers have identified 120 manufacturers in Asia, Africa, and Latin America that could start making Moderna and Pfizer vaccines if those companies would share the information they need to do so. This follows previous findings that confirm this ability—a capacity that Global South countries with robust pharmaceutical sectors have long been saying they possess, yet is lying fallow.
Sharing these vaccine recipes is especially urgent because there is growing evidence that mRNA vaccines—those produced by Pfizer and Moderna—are the only ones that actually stop the spread of the Omicron variant. The New York Times reported today, “All vaccines still seem to provide a significant degree of protection against serious illness from Omicron, which is the most crucial goal. But only the Pfizer and Moderna shots, when reinforced by a booster, appear to have initial success at stopping infections, and these vaccines are unavailable in most of the world.”
It is these vaccines—from Pfizer and Moderna—that global health activists had already been pleading for, due to the fact that mRNA vaccines are simpler to produce, and easier to adapt to new variants. But in addition to failing to push hard for a patent waiver at the WTO, the Biden administration—along with other leaders of rich nations—is falling far short on vaccine donations, delivering just a fraction of those doses it has promised. As the Gates-backed Covax program flounders, there is simply no clear plan being presented by the Biden administration for vaccinating the entire world—the only thing that can actually stop new variants from occurring. In addition to failing to take these basic proactive measures, the Biden administration is actively doing harm by continuing Trump-era sanctions, from Iran to Cuba, that are actively hampering those countries’ ability to fight Covid.
At a November 29 TRIPS Council meeting, representatives of India and South Africa excoriated rich countries for the lack of progress on a patent waiver. “We have always stated that the inequity in access to vaccines would lead to the rise of variants that may be more transmissible, more lethal and would circumvent the efficacy of existing vaccines, so how long can WTO members wait and at what cost to start text-based negotiations, India asked,” according to a summary of the proceedings I reported on for In These Times.
The Biden White House has since tried to walk back the statement made by Harris. One of her advisors told CNN, “The Vice President’s comments referred to the exact kind of mutation. The administration knew mutations were possible, it [is] the reason we ordered extra tests, extra gear and extra PPE." Yet, all evidence suggests the Biden administration did not have a plan for this new variant, which is hitting the United States as millions are now without expanded unemployment insurance, and people across the country are receiving email notifications that they must restart payments on their student loans. Social programs are drying up just as the new variant is surging, and millions of people—including those who have been doing everything they were told, getting vaccines and boosters, and taking social distance preventative measures, often at great personal cost—face new depths of weariness and despair.
As global health activist Tobita Chow pointed out, Harris’ statement is comparable to former President George W. Bush’s remark, four days after Hurricane Katrina hit, that “I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees.” This latest intensification of the pandemic is, in large part, of the Biden administration’s own making. People are suffering, terrified, and confused about how to move forward on an individual level, in light of the fact that there is no clear, overarching plan to actually end the pandemic. The Biden administration should have done more than just see this coming: It should have taken action to prevent this Omicron variant from emerging in the first place, namely by aggressively and publicly backing the patent waiver proposed by India and South Africa at the WTO so poor countries can start scaling up mRNA vaccine now, as they should have been doing in January 2021—with real force and leverage, not just a mildly worded press release every six months vaguely supporting some theoretical, but ill-defined waiver. It’s not too late: It’s now clear this pandemic needs to be viewed in years, not months, and a radical pivot on sharing intellectual property with the whole world would show the White House, for once, understands the scope and severity of the problem.