No surprise how thrilled I was at Trump’s ouster, but it can’t compare with how surprised, elated and so extremely happy I was yesterday when the U.S. announced it was supporting waving patents on Covid vaccines. This more than the Trump defeat resurrects American morality. But probably not exactly in the way you think.
International patents have blocked developing world efforts to feed themselves and lift themselves out of poverty for decades and decades. At the same time they are crucial to global capitalism. There has yet to be a good global economic alternative to capitalism, and while this is not a clear contradiction of capitalistic missions, it’s close.
If capitalism were guarded to its ultimate, the idea of waving an international patent wouldn’t be considered. Nevertheless, this is almost exactly what happened about a generation ago.
By the late 1990s AIDS was still ravaging the developing world while the developed world was achieving a certain stabilization with a bunch of new cocktail drugs. These were prohibitively expensive to the developing world and South Africa was on the fence – buying the drugs for its own population at great effort but understanding that the epidemic all along its borders – particularly in Zimbabwe – threatened its efforts.
India joined South Africa in making the motion at the WTO to wave the patents on AIDS drugs.
It was defeated so South Africa and India combined to bring the issue before the World Court. The US has never joined the World Court so the decision would have been moot, but the move was considered so dramatic by the Bush administration, that Bush caved.
He turned staunch Republican support for capitalism into a brilliant global relations’ move. Without actually waving the AIDS’ drug patents, Bush committed the U.S. to an AIDS-aid effort especially in Africa that subsidized sufficiently the costs of the patent-supported drugs.
Bush’ legacy began to sparkle and today he is remembered in Africa mostly for this effort.
Considered on the micro level the worth of Bush’ move appears truly more moral than manipulative. Simply waving a patent doesn’ the issue solve.
There are usually dozens if not hundreds of patents involved in the manufacture of a drug. The engineering is complicated and even if the waver extended to each connected patent, tooling up for the effort is huge.
And then there is the matter of the ingredients needed. Both AIDS and Covid drugs involve to some extend genetic manipulation to produce basic ingredients. Even if the patents governing this engineering were also waved, the initial ingredients to be manipulated are not easy to come by.
Then there are the more ordinary but still often difficult to obtain packing ingredients – the “inert ingredients” often described on any consumer product.
Altogether the efforts that must follow a patent waver are extraordinary. So practically speaking, simply having the developed world buy the drugs then share them is a much quicker, effective way to get the vaccine into the arms of poor people around the world.
So why I am so elated?
First, because Biden has promised to share the vaccine globally and seems so far to be keeping that promise first made on the campaign trail. So the mission to get the world vaccinated is as on track as I think America can achieve.
But second and more academically this is an unexpected morally brilliant policy statement:
America – before Europe or Canada or any other major democratic capitalist country – has affirmed that the keystones of capitalism are negotiable when the earth as a whole is threatened… or more precisely, threatens itself with the destruction that capitalism practiced to its ultimate can induce.
I doubt that sharing vaccine or waving patents will get the world to herd immunity against Covid-19. I’m growing convinced that Covid-19 and its mutants and derivatives are here to stay, just as they have been my whole life with the flu.
Hopefully we’ll be able to deal with it as with the flu and those nincompoops who refuse to get the annual shot get sick while the rest of us party. But what this new American stance does is carry forward a certain global readiness should another wholly new virus appear.
Manufacturers, wary that their patents are no longer immutable, will need either legislated guarantees or government mandates that protect by newly defining the limits of capitalism their earnings.
That’s good. It gets rid of the false hope that Covax gave the developing world, and it acknowledges that we all live in the same house: When a peasant coughs in India she infects a hedge manager in the Cayman Islands.
Not only will this extend the lives of the world’s citizens. It might even extend the life of capitalism.