News Brief: On Biden’s TRIPS Waiver Support, Substance Matters More than Headlines

Citations Needed | May 6, 2021 | Transcript

Activists rally on the National Mall in support of global access to Covid-19 vaccines on May 5, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (Credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

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Nima Shirazi: Welcome to a Citations Needed News Brief. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: We do these News Briefs in between our regularly scheduled episodes of Citations Needed when the news just calls for the hottest of takes that we could possibly give. But of course, you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. All your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated, we are 100 percent listener funded and so your support goes such a long way. Adam, I feel like we really need to get to what we’re going to talk about quick, we’re going to cut out any kind of superfluous intro, because there is breaking news regarding the TRIPS waiver, about intellectual property as it pertains to COVID-19 vaccines and we have been following this I would say fairly closely, as closely as we tend to follow things and doing a number of follow ups to our episode on intellectual property and the day that we are recording this, May 5, 2021, there is late breaking news.

Adam: Yeah, so the Biden administration has come out in nominal support of a TRIPS waiver. It is being reported by many people as supporting the TRIPS waiver, as is popularly known, primarily proposed by India and South Africa, that calls for a blanket very broad IP exemption under the emergency carve outs for anything involving COVID or COVID-19 related. So it’s a blanket waiver, blanket patent suspension and a statement released by US Trade Representative Katherine Tai claimed that the US supports a waiver of intellectual property as it pertains to the vaccines, did not mention anything about the other materials and tech support that the broader waiver called for, so what we have here is a situation where there’s a really splashy, very provocative headline and story about the US supporting a TRIPS waiver and on the surface, that seems like a huge win and make no mistake, it is good. It’s better than the thing that came before, it’s a step in the right direction, I think that’s sort of universally accepted, but like with a lot of things with Democrats, specifically this administration, who again, announced in big eighty point font that they were ending their support for the war in Yemen, this made a huge PR splash, two, three months later, we know that that really wasn’t true that 70–80 percent of the primary apparatuses of their support for Yemen were untouched and there’s concern about the fine print here as well as there should be and that’s sort of what we do. We try to, you know, this is fundamentally a media story, it’s how it’s framed, it’s the PR pressure put on the administration from progressives and the upswell of support for the TRIPS waiver was very, very tremendous. I mean, we’re talking 400 MEPs in Europe, we’re talking over 200 members of Congress, virtually all Democrats, with the handful of exceptions of people who are literally just funded by big pharma, we’re talking about Doctors Without Borders, Human Rights Watch, very mainline liberal organizations. So they come out in support of it, and everyone’s sort of cheers and spikes the football, but with a lot of these things, of course Nima —

Nima: Yes. Do tell.

Adam: The devil is not just in the details, I think the devils in the details sort of trivializes what we’re talking about, the devil’s in the substance, which is to say, we don’t know yet what the actual counter proposal directed by the US will be because the US is now saying, the US is not supporting the TRIPS waiver that we sort of broadly know, they are supporting a TRIPS waiver TBD. So what they told India and South Africa and others is they said, ‘Okay, let’s go back to the drawing board,’ and they’ve been negotiating this for weeks, specifically since April 30 in this particular round of negotiations, they’re saying go back and rewrite the proposal, presumably with some conditions that make it more satisfactory to both US and the European Commission. The European Commission has been a just as, if not bigger opponent to this.

Nima: Yeah.

Adam: Pretty much white majority countries and Japan are the primary barriers with this, as we talked about in the first episode back in January. And so everyone sort of celebrates, and I get that, I understand why people want to do that, but if there’s one thing I think we just learned from the Yemen war that never ended is that we really, at least I personally, don’t think there’s much utility in spiking the football when we don’t actually know what the substance of the proposal they’re proffering. Now, it could be virtually the same, it could be very broad, it could be great, it could be that for whatever reason, the pillars of US capital within the White House lost in the sort of progressives rogues won the day.

Nima: But we don’t know. But we don’t know. Wouldn’t that be great, but we don’t know.

Adam: Yeah, I initially a few days ago predicted that the US will nominally support a TRIPS waiver but I believe, I don’t know the exact quote I said, it’ll be a quarter measure, they’ll call it a TRIPS waiver, but it won’t really be one. So, I’m skeptical.

Nima: So, to that point, Adam, I think it’s important to actually read the statement that was put out by the Office of the United States Trade Representative Katherine Tai, because let’s actually figure out what we’re talking about here and what is missing from the statement, yet, we’re seeing all the reporting about, you know, ‘This is a huge victory,’ etcetera, etcetera. So let’s think about what we actually know, which is not much, but it is this, this is the statement officially put out May 5, 2021 by Katherine Tai’s office quote:

“This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures. The Administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections, but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for COVID-19 vaccines. We will actively participate in text-based negotiations at the World Trade Organization (WTO) needed to make that happen. Those negotiations will take time given the consensus-based nature of the institution and the complexity of the issues involved.”

And it goes on to say this, quote:

“The Administration’s aim is to get as many safe and effective vaccines to as many people as fast as possible. As our vaccine supply for the American people is secured, the Administration will continue to ramp up its efforts — working with the private sector and all possible partners — to expand vaccine manufacturing and distribution. It will also work to increase the raw materials needed to produce those vaccines.”

End quote.

So that is the entirety of the statement that is now being reported on. Of course, we may get more details but as the statement itself says, these things will take time, this is not a turnkey, right? Of waving of intellectual property, but also what is not explicitly stated here and look, it may follow, I don’t know, but what is not explicitly stated here it is that it’s not just the TRIPS waiver, that advocates are saying will do the thing that needs to be done to truly end this pandemic and get as many shots in as many arms as possible, it is providing technical support, medical expertise, it is ensuring that the industrial level manufacturing of these vaccines in other countries, namely in the Global South, are ready to roll, that that can actually happen. Now, we already know that a lot of that is in place. There’s this idea, there’s this kind of imperial, colonial idea that only white Western countries have the wherewithal, the intellectual know-how and the industrial infrastructure to actually make this happen and, you know, you can’t just free up these patents, and then any old country can just make these things. Now, of course, again, it’s not just the lifting of the patent law, right? It’s not just freeing up intellectual property rights, it is doing all the things that can enable other countries elsewhere to start manufacturing at the levels that would really be beneficial to millions around the world and so what we just don’t know, because of this statement, while obviously a huge step in the right direction, potentially could also lay the groundwork for if the supply does not meet say some demand, it can be said, ‘Well, you see, we lifted the waiver like like you all called for, but obviously, these countries can’t really do it therefore we were right all along.’ You know what I mean? It kind of creates a scenario.

Adam: There’s two ends of the spectrum that play out, right? There’s the very optimistic end of the spectrum where for some reason, Katherine Thai and other so-called progressives, you know, Katherine Tai is a bit of a wild card here, she’s the one wildcard where she doesn’t have a lot of industry ties, unlike pretty much everyone else in the Biden administration, Katherine Tai is not really laundered through these corporate consultancy firms or lobbying groups or think tanks, she’s pretty much an actual bureaucrat in a sort of traditional sense and I know that she has support among progressive groups that I generally trust a little bit, although they can be somewhat partisan, like, Public Citizen, she is considered to be not in the totally corporate shill, going-to-go-lobby-for-Uber, although don’t mark my words.

Nima: Oh no, I think you just made that happen.

Adam: So she’s a bit of a wild card. So there’s kind of two ways of playing this. There’s number one, this is good faith, for whatever reason the progressives won the day, maybe even they sat down some of the big term picture business guys and said, ‘Look, this is good for Pfizer, but it’s bad for everyone else, because this won’t, we need to end this global pandemic once and for all and it’s actually in your best interest, it’s in capital’s best interest, it’s in empire’s best interest to waive these for now because it’ll help us whatever,’ blah, blah, blah. That’s the optimistic spectrum, the cynical end of the spectrum is, is that there was so much pressure, and there’s so much optical concern with progressives, and again, they were getting heat from a ton of groups, right? That there was incentive to kind of do it both ways, which is look like you’re trying to pass some form of a TRIPS waiver, get the PR, get the heat off you, just like with Yemen, get them off your back and then behind the scenes you sort of handwring and drag your feet and drag on the procedure so the effect is the same, which is there is no real waiver or you present a waiver that is so narrow in scope, because I think there’s some indication that may be the case, because they only mentioned the vaccines themselves, that you effectively make them kind of useless and then therefore industry still wins. You win because you sort of look like you tried and all the progressives. So, there’s a little bit of a conflict of interest here I want to touch on and I’m very hesitant to talk about it because I feel like it’s kind of punching down but I do think it’s worth talking about and it’s definitely a thing and I think it’s a thing that everyone knows about but no one really mentions because it’s a little bit like your sort of infighting, but I do want to point it out, I feel like we have an obligation to kind of talk about this particular phenomenon, which is, Biden’s very good at doing these Pearl Harbor attack eighty point headlines, right? Like, you know, ‘Japan attacks Hawaii,’ whatever. Ends the war in Yemen, that’s a cycle for two weeks straight, that’s the sort of narrative, and a lot of groups that push him, some I think are being cynical, some I think are just very under resourced and very much mean well and have an actual theory of change that involves being positive, they have an incentive to be very enthusiastic about these gestures, because that’s ultimately how they fundraise and how they justify themselves, right? You say, ‘Oh, well, we can influence the Biden administration, you donated to us, we did this campaign, they changed their policy, we have impact,’ right? It’s all fucking people in the nonprofit world about his fucking impact and I don’t think that’s cynical, I get why they do it, and even beyond the fundraising aspect, I think there are people who would say in good faith that they think being positive is actually better. That is not what you and I do, we are bound by a different covenant. We are not, and I don’t want to be mindlessly cynical either because I think that’s the other end of the spectrum.

Nima: Bummers.

Adam: But this rah rah shit where you say, you know, ‘Biden kept his promise and let’s all celebrate.’

Nima: Yeah.

Adam: I’m not quite sure and this is a, I’m not 100 percent confident this, this is a policy, this is more of a sort of activist theory conversation, right? But I have zero faith in the idea that saying, ‘Rah rah go Biden you kept your promise,’ without knowing the substance of what will ultimately be in this proposal —

Nima: Yeah.

Adam: Without knowing the substance of the amount of pressure that they’re exerting to actually get meaningful patent waivers, I’m not sure I see the value in that.

Nima: Well, it’s too early, right? I mean —

Adam: I don’t think we should poopoo it either.

Nima: Positive reinforcement can work, but after the thing is actually done, not just when a press release comes out.

Adam: You know, positive reinforcement with these fucking people in the White House? Look, there, I think there’s an indication that the Biden administration, for whatever reason, is full of some people who actually give a shit what the nation thinks of them, right? Thank god, you know, even if it’s a little bit, even if it’s not significant, that there’s some pressure you can put on them. I think that’s real but I think there’s so much, and this is why it’s fundamentally a media story, I think there’s a lot of institutional incentive to look like things are happening.

Nima: Right.

Adam: And again, I was just completely burnt by the war in Yemen.

Nima: That’s the value of the press release.

Adam: I think I’m normally cynical, like a seven, I’m at a nine now because of what happened with Yemen, where we had all these headlines, and then you read the fine print, and you’re like, wait a second, why would they qualify it? Wait a second, if the U.S. supported a robust TRIPS waiver why would they not just support the one that already exists in name? I know that there’s always gonna be negotiations, but they could have said, ‘Oh, in principle, the general outline of the current waiver we support and therefore let’s do a broad…,’ but they didn’t do that.

Nima: Well. Yeah. I mean, I think that that indicates that they’re still trying to figure it out, and that they’re getting ahead of the scrutiny that’s already kind of coming, they’re maybe not ahead of, but they’re responding to rather the amount of scrutiny that has been put on them regarding the TRIPS waiver in recent days and weeks, trying to kind of end that scrutiny, end that line of questioning, of saying, you know, if you know that there needs to be massive vaccine rollout, why are you protecting profits over people, over public health, and they’re trying to, with this press release, with the statement from Katherine Tai to kind of end that. I don’t necessarily know if it’s as cynical as saying, ‘We’re just gonna put this press release out and then basically nothing’s gonna happen.’ That’s not what I’m saying. I think something will happen but I think that they — and I say they meaning the Biden administration — is trying to figure out what they actually mean by supporting the TRIPS waiver so they’re being as vague as possible and saying this will take time and negotiation to get to a place where they can maintain that they absolutely, fundamentally support intellectual property rights, while also, you know, calling this extraordinary, so that they can both get the good PR, hopefully do something that is very necessary for millions of people on planet earth to continue to live and survive, but I don’t think that they even know what they are prepared to do yet, which is why you see this kind of statement released, and to your point, Adam, the reason this is a media story is because the media is now going to be reporting on that statement as extremely positive. ‘This is wonderful,’ ‘Promises kept,’ ‘Biden cares,’ ‘This is unprecedented,’ ‘Doing what you can in the face of an extreme global emergency,’ ‘Let’s end this pandemic.’ They get all the good press. That is great, wonderful, but we need to see what happens, right? So trying not to be so cynical, to be like this is a PR ploy, this is bullshit, I Think we just don’t know yet, we don’t know, it’s a fairly vague statement that hopefully could signal something good and we know better than to trust in the best possible outcome when it comes to either capitalism, you know, served by patents or imperialism served by supporting a Saudi destruction of Yemen.

Adam: I mean, no one’s saying you have to sort of automatically assume the worst scenario, but the opposite is also true, you should absolutely not assume that this is a good faith effort to really get a robust patent waiver. I mean, I don’t know, you know, there’s so many different ways that this thing can be pseudo-pursued and hand wrung and kind of drag their feet, especially with all the national security heat they’re getting to make sure the US has vaccine diplomacy and has this leverage over poor countries, which is why I’ve always thought that this was unlikely to ever have a real robust waiver. So, but you know, this is, as I said, you know, in our, in our last News Brief: I’m happy to be wrong.

Nima: Yeah.

Adam: And we don’t want to get too much into the prediction game, but definitely, like, read past the headlines for the love of fucking god because we don’t know the substance of the actual proposal yet, we will probably know in the coming weeks, although it can be very opaque. That’s one of the major problems too, groups like CEPR, groups like Public Citizen, groups like Peoples Vaccine, you know, they did the ‘Rah rah this is great,’ which I understand why they do that, I think that’s fine, not my style, but I get it, and then they follow it up by saying, ‘But we need billions in infrastructure support, we need technology transfer, we need this, this and this,’ and that’s the thing we really need to keep our eye on. It’s not even about predicting and getting W’s and saying I told you so, it’s about keeping the pressure on different theories about whether or not ‘Rah rah go Biden’ makes that happen or whether or not that does what I think it probably did, or at least what our guest Shereen Al-Adeimi said it did with the anti-war effort in Yemen, which is basically take the wind out of the sails.

Nima: Yeah.

Adam: Which is the real fear here that you sort of get the headline, you get the email blast to donors, you get the sort of feel good story and then once the substance comes a few weeks later we realize that it was basically vaporware, and I think that we need to make sure that doesn’t happen and I think there needs to be calibrated cynicism, which is to say, not mindless cynicism, you know, I don’t wanna do the fucking like, ‘Oh, they’re all the same,’ I mean, that stuff’s pretty useless, quite frankly, but you also don’t want to do the the sort of ‘Rah rah we won, let’s be nice to Biden,’ and act like this is a victory because without substance there is there’s no victory here. No victory here. There’s been some semantics, you know, quibbles about, you know, because Bloomberg, when they first reported the story, said Biden supports a TRIPS waiver, and then the headline became, from democratic partisans and such, Biden supports the TRIPS waiver. But the antecedent TRIPS waiver and question that we’ve all been talking about for seven months is not what they support, they support it in principle, and so in a very technical and very limited sense, they do support the TRIPS waiver in the sense that the same TRIPS waiver is now going to be rewritten, right? And so it’s very technical, the first draft versus the final book or — I don’t know — it’s like Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights, how it was based on someone’s personal memoir of living in Cuba, and then by the time it went to the Hollywood sausage machine, it turned out to be this derivative sequel that no one asked for, like how this ends up matters, right? For example, if I’m a city councilperson and I propose police reform Bill 123 and the bill calls for a 30 percent reduction in the police force budget and we can paint on this for months and everyone says ‘Bill 123,’ and Bill 123 becomes a mantra and becomes a slogan and then the mayor says, ‘I support Bill 123, but I need to I need to negotiate it and then after those negotiations my goal is to make sure it’s a 30 percent increase in the police budget.’ Is it fair to say that the mayor supports Bill 123 in any kind of meaningful sense? No, because now it’s this other thing. So we don’t know if that’s happened yet, but if it does happen, where the version that gets vomited out of these meetings ends up being really bad or very narrow in scope or bends over backwards to protect American pharmaceutical interests, then it is not correct to say Biden supports the TRIPS waiver in any meaningful sense in terms of how people actually view the TRIPS waiver for what it is, which is what it’s been since last October, which is a very broad, very open interpretation of patent suspension. So I do think it matters how you phrase it and I think there is a reason Bloomberg said Biden supports our a TRIPS waiver versus the TRIPS waiver, which he absolutely does not and that I think was the problem today. I think the headlines oversold the shit out of it by saying Biden supports the TRIPS waiver. What they should have said was ‘Biden supports opening negotiations for a TRIPS waiver,’ which would have been entirely accurate, still conveyed that there was progress made, but what those negotiations produce and whether or not those negotiations are taken in good faith is the question and in that sense it’s not really a meaningful win, it sort of gets you to a place where maybe you can have one, and it’s definitely important, but it’s definitely not what the headline said which is that Biden supports the TRIPS waiver which implies that they’re supporting, which most people will interpret as supporting the demands of activists over the last seven months, which is yet to be shown to be the case.

Nima: Right, yet to be seen. However, the PR work was done. I mean, that shows this is a totally successful, so far, PR gambit, right?

Adam: Everyone’s so, ‘Why you gotta be a cynical asshole,’ and it’s like, I’m not trying to be a cynical asshole. I swear to god, I don’t wake up in the morning saying how can I interpret things in the most ungenerous light.

Nima: I think you literally texted that to me this morning.

Adam: I, literally, you know, our job is to look at the substance of what people say and to not look at spin in headlines, that is why people fucking tune in to the show, is that you know we’re gonna try to give you the most sober interpretation of reality. We know based on past history, based on Joe Biden’s decades in politics, based on their pseudo pull out in Yemen, there is precedent here, dare I say, of saying one thing and sort of doing the other and so we will remain cautiously optimistic but we have to have calibrated cynicism, we have to not just accept the the 80 point headline.

Nima: That’s right.

Adam: That’s all I’m suggesting.

Nima: Read, be skeptical and verify. That’s what we’re gonna do and that will do it for this Citations Needed News Brief. We will stay on this case, of course, as we have been. Thank you everyone for listening. We will be back very soon with another full length episode of Citations Needed but until then you can of course follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. We are 100 percent listener funded, we’d love to keep it that way. That’s not a threat. (It’s a veiled threat.) If you have considered supporting the show and have not yet we would love it if you did. That would be really lovely of you. But that will do it for the Citations Needed News Brief. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks everyone for listening. We’ll catch you next time.

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This Citations Needed News Brief was released on Friday, May 6, 2021.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.