The Hill Op-Ed: American workers need us to get this pandemic under control around the world

The Delta-driven wave of COVID-19 death and economic destruction underscores why urgent action to end the pandemic is the best way to honor American workers.

President Biden’s proposed special COVID summit planned in conjunction with the UN General Assembly in mid-September could deliver on both fronts if it is focused on greatly increasing global production and supply of COVID-19 vaccines, treatments, and diagnostic tests.

The Delta variant, first detected in India and now ravaging communities here, makes painfully clear that ‘no one is safe until everyone is safe’ is not just a slogan. The only way to safeguard Americans’ health and economic security is for the U.S. government to deliver on President Biden’s pledge to save lives and livelihoods worldwide by leading the global vaccination effort necessary to end the pandemic.

To date, that is not happening.

Even before some wealthy nations announced plans for COVID booster shots, there was a horrifying shortage relative to the 14 billion vaccine doses considered necessary to cover the world.

Less than 2 percent of the entire population of the African continent is vaccinated. Most African nations will not reach 10 percent vaccination in 2021. Worldwide, only one in 47 people, or about 2 percent, are vaccinated. Raging outbreaks are killing 10,000 people daily.

Producing many more doses of an effective vaccine is the only path out of this vicious cycle of economic devastation and perhaps more deadly or vaccine-resistant variants.

It is painfully obvious that the few pharmaceutical firms that now have monopoly control over how much vaccine is made, where it is sold, and at what price will not meet global needs. As we enter the ninth month of 2021, only five billion of the 12 billion 2021 doses they promised have been delivered. And that includes Chinese vaccines that are much less effective than U.S. mRNA shots.

This grim reality of extreme vaccine shortages underscores why President Biden’s mission during the UN Global Assembly must be to greatly increase production and supply. There are three critical steps that global leaders must agree on if the summit is to be a success.

First, President Biden must deliver a deal to temporarily waive the World Trade Organization rules now thwarting wider production of COVID-19 medicines. These WTO intellectual property barriers require countries to guarantee pharmaceutical corporations monopoly control over if and where COVID vaccines, treatments, and diagnostics can be made. Unlocking the rights for more qualified producers is critical.

That is why people around the globe cheered when President Biden reversed the Trump administration and announced U.S. support. But there has been no progress in the four months since.

Breaking monopoly control over production not only means more vaccines but will resolve vaccine supply chain shortfalls given patent barriers now block sufficient production of the lipids and bioreactor bags needed to make vaccines.

The U.S. must play its indispensable leadership role to work with South Africa and other nations to quickly finalize a waiver text and overcome the German opposition now blocking the 130 nations that support a waiver. 

Second, the U.S. government must leverage its massive investments in vaccine development and use existing legal authorities under the Defense Production Act, Bayh-Dole Act, and Section 1498 government patent use to require vaccine makers to share the vaccine recipe with willing, qualified companies around the world for a fair royalty fee so more doses can be made as quickly as possible. The U.S. government has considerable power to do this, particularly since it holds patents key to the National Institutes for Health (NIH)-Moderna vaccine, funded its development via NIH, and has the vaccine recipe.

Recently, the South Korean government publicly urged the Biden administration to require U.S. firms with monopoly rights over the two most effective vaccines to allow Korean firms to pay them for the recipes to be able to produce more doses. The Financial Times reported the U.S. government said it was the companies’ choice. This is unacceptable, especially since governments worldwide invested more than $121 billion of taxpayer funds in developing and producing COVID-19 vaccines and treatments from which a handful of firms now reap tens of billions in windfall profits.

Finally, the U.S. government must launch and help fund a global manufacturing plan to increase and democratize vaccine production in hubs worldwide. At the summit, the administration must convince other governments to help fund production around the world.

The mismatch between the crisis we face and the failure by world leaders to date to deliver on the concrete actions needed to end the pandemic is disastrous and unacceptable.

Ending the pandemic is a political question, not a technical one. The world leaders meeting at the UN must choose to end the pandemic.

Reps. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, Lloyd Doggett of Texas, and Earl Blumenauer of Oregon are members of the U.S. House of Representatives, serving in leadership roles on committees and subcommittees of jurisdiction. Rep. Schakowsky is the Chair of the Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee on the Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. DeLauro chairs the House Appropriations Committee, and Reps. Doggett and Blumenauer Chair the Ways and Means Subcommittees on Health and Trade, respectively.

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