Momentum gathered Thursday for an agreement to waive patent protections for COVID-19 vaccines.
Europe appeared to tentatively support the plan, which the US formally backed on Wednesday. “The EU is ready to discuss any proposal that addresses the crisis in an effective and pragmatic manner,” Ursula von der Leyen said, during online comments for a virtual conference in Florence. “We are ready to discuss how the US proposal could help achieve that objective,” she added.
Although China didn’t say whether it would actually endorse the proposal, the foreign ministry signaled openness to the discussion. “China supports attention to the issue of vaccine accessibility and we look forward to participat[ing] in positive and constructive discussions under the WTO framework to reach a balanced and effective outcome,” spokesman Wang Wenbin mused, in a carefully-worded, boilerplate statement.
Shares of vaccine makers were under pressure. Pfizer and Novavax were weak and BioNTech plunged in German trading.
WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala declared this “the moral and economic issue of our time.” Bloomberg noted that a final decision on waiving IP protections “may take weeks to hammer out in the face of opposition from the pharmaceutical industry.”
The arguments from drugmakers are predictable: It’s not easy to make these even if you know the secret sauce, materials are scarce and you can’t just retool a widget factory to make an mRNA vaccine overnight.
“In what way is a US Grand Strategy helped by allowing firms to rake in mega profits in a world in which realpolitik ‘vaccine diplomacy’ is so evident?,” Rabobank’s Michael Every asked. “See the recent public fury in India against the US over vaccine hoarding, for example; and imagine a map of the world where India isn’t a friend of the US, and yet the US still has a strong hand in the Indo-Pacific; and project the Asian economy China is most worried about in the long term.”
In other vaccine news, Moderna announced that strain-matched booster shots for previously vaccinated individuals may protect against two variants of concern. “As we seek to defeat the ongoing pandemic, we remain committed to being proactive as the virus evolves,” the company said. “We are encouraged by these new data, which reinforce our confidence that our booster strategy should be protective against these newly detected variants,” Stephane Bancel remarked, adding that “the strong and rapid boost in titers to levels above primary vaccination also clearly demonstrates the ability of mRNA-1273 to induce immune memory.” That’s welcome news considering the acute situation in India. (But Mr. Bancel, be advised that this technology of yours may not… well, may not be “yours” for very long.)
Elsewhere Thursday, shares were mixed as traders and investors seem to view the world as having arrived at a kind of crossroads. Is it a grand reopening (in the US) or an emergency lockdown for 1.4 billion people (what should probably happen in India)? Is the pro-cyclical rotation here to stay in equities or will we look back and chuckle at how naive we were to pivot away from technology in an increasingly technologized world? Has the developed world finally pivoted in a serious way towards fiscal initiatives aimed at ameliorating inequality and bringing about meaningful societal change or was that a childlike pipe dream?