Despite India disaster, US government refuses COVID vaccine patent waivers

Photo: Patient outside one of India’s largest hospitals for coronavirus patients. Credit: Ninian Reid

A deadly second wave of COVID-19 is raging through India. The country is seeing more than 3,000 deaths and hundreds of thousands of cases every single day. At least 200,000 have died thus far. Modeling data shows that the death count is likely twice as high as the official numbers.

Hospitals in India are over capacity and in need of oxygen, personal protective equipment, beds, COVID-related medications, ventilators and other medical supplies. Crematorium workers are working around the clock — burning body after body. Bodies are having to be burned on the roadside. There is no doubt that India’s poorest are facing the brunt of this crisis in a country with a severely underfunded public health care sector.

With India reporting over 19 million total cases, it is now only second to the United States. It is suspected that a new variant of the coronavirus could be the cause of the devastating second wave. India has thus far managed to administer approximately 150 million first doses and 26 million second doses. The population of India is 1.4 billion.

Biden administration puts profits over human lives

Despite the dire situation, the White House initially refused to lift the ban on the export of the raw materials needed to manufacture the vaccine. The Biden administration attempted to justify this by claiming they were concerned with U.S. public health, and they were prioritizing vaccinating people in the United States.

Last month, the Serum Institute of India — the world’s biggest vaccine producer — requested that the Biden administration lift the ban on vaccine raw material exports to address the deadly crisis. Despite India being ostensibly the United States’ ally, U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said the United States’ top priority is vaccinating itself first.

This outraged and angered many in India and around the world. In the face of heavy international pressure and criticism, the U.S. government backpedaled and sent assistance to India. The U.S. government now promises to provide raw materials and medical equipment, and share 60 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine reserves if federal safety regulations clear. It should be noted, however, that the U.S. stockpile of coronavirus vaccines exceeds the country’s needs by 550 million doses.

But the damage has been done. The United States dragged its feet while thousands of Indians died and is now only acting to save face. It was only this international pressure and criticism that forced the Biden administration to relent and agree to transfer raw materials needed to make vaccines in India. And this has not had a detrimental impact on U.S. residents’ ability to access the vaccine.

The United States has played a leading role in obstructing the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine to the billions of people in the world still in need — creating effectively a system of vaccine apartheid. The governments of the United States, United Kingdom, and the European Union nations have made deals with private pharmaceutical companies to reserve vaccine supplies. Only 7% of the global population is fully vaccinated, while the governments of the wealthiest nations in the world have purchased over half of the global vaccine supply.

The United States remains opposed to supporting the Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights waiver. Under World Trade Organization rules, the WTO can invoke the waiver of certain intellectual property rights on specific technologies, including pharmaceutical developments. Recognizing the detrimental impact of intellectual property barriers on global health, over 100 developing countries are calling for a waiver of IP rights related to the COVID vaccines until much of the world is vaccinated and develops immunity to the virus. But while countries like India suffer catastrophic COVID-19 spikes, Biden refuses to support the waivers, despite the huge numbers of people who are dying due to lack of access to vaccines.

The motivation behind Biden’s decision to initially refuse to send aid to India and the reason he has not supported waving vaccine patents are the same — profit. Thousands who could be saved are dying every day because the therapeutic, technological and scientific advancements made by tens of thousands of scientists and workers over the years remain the private property of a few capitalists.

It is the work of countless people around the world — collaborating and corresponding on research of viruses and vaccines — over the course of this crisis and over the decades that allowed the COVID vaccines to be developed at a rapid pace. Billions in public spending was invested into the private sector to produce these medical advancements. The United States spent $18 billion of taxpayer money on the production and distribution of COVID vaccines — and yet these vaccines remain hostage to private pharmaceutical corporations.

India’s loyalty to US government a death sentence for Indians

The far-right Modi government in India has criminally mismanaged the pandemic. In India, Modi’s far right BJP party has neither built emergency hospitals nor taken over ruthless private hospitals profiting from disease. The sales of public assets and tax breaks for the capitalist class continues to be the trend under Modi. 

The Modi government is an ally and strategic partner of the United States, which has enlisted India in its “Indo-Pacific Quad” alliance against China. The United States is deepening its alliances as it further pivots to Asia, positioning itself for “major power conflict” to secure U.S. global hegemony and contain China. The United States’ callous response to India’s COVID crisis reveals the inequality, weakness and unreliability of this partnership.

Since the start of the pandemic, China has been recognized as a leader for both its effectiveness in tackling the coronavirus domestically and its international aid efforts. While the United States has acted slowly and reluctantly when India reached out for assistance, China’s government has offered COVID aid to India on its own initiative several times.

Outrageously, the Modi government has tacitly refused China’s offer by choosing to not even engage in dialogue despite India’s current emergency. Recently, India was invited by Beijing to attend a meeting for South Asian countries to establish a COVID-19 emergency supplies reserve, and India did not even attend. 

The Modi government has chosen to be loyal toward its U.S. allies despite the role the Biden administration has played in exacerbating the crisis. The true motivation behind the U.S. government’s criminal withholding of support for intellectual property waivers is a desire to protect the profits of corporations and capitalists over human lives. For poor and working-class people worldwide to have access to the vaccines — and ensure that everyone is able to obtain the resources they need to protect themselves from COVID-19 — we need vaccine patents to be waived, and to prioritize the needs and lives of the people over the greed and profits of pharmaceutical corporations.

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