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How Bill Gates impeded global access to Covid vaccines

Through his hallowed foundation, the world’s de facto public health czar has been a stalwart defender of monopoly medicine. 

by Alexander Zaitchik

Part 3 - The extent and ways intellectual property posed barriers to ramping up production

Technically housed within the WHO, the ACT-Accelerator is a Gates operation, top to bottom. It is designed, managed, and staffed largely by Gates organization employees. It embodies Gates’s philanthropic approach to widely anticipated problems posed by intellectual property–hoarding companies able to constrain global production by prioritizing rich countries and inhibiting licensing. Companies partnering with COVAX are allowed to set their own tiered prices. They are subject to almost no transparency requirements and to toothless contractual nods to “equitable access” that have never been enforced. Crucially, the companies retain exclusive rights to their intellectual property.

If they stray from the Gates Foundation line on exclusive rights, they are quickly brought to heel. When the director of Oxford’s Jenner Institute had funny ideas about placing the rights to its COVAX-supported vaccine candidate in the public domain, Gates intervened. As reported by Kaiser Health News, “A few weeks later, Oxford—urged on by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—reversed course [and] signed an exclusive vaccine deal with AstraZeneca that gave the pharmaceutical giant sole rights and no guarantee of low prices.

Considering the alternatives being discussed, it is no surprise that drug companies have been the most enthusiastic boosters of the ACT-Accelerator and COVAX. The speakers at the ACT-Accelerator launch ceremony in March 2020 included Thomas Cueni, director general of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations, who hailed the initiative as a “landmark global partnership.” Since vaccines started coming online, the IFPMA’s member companies have lost interest in the Accelerator, preferring bilateral deals with rich countries. But they continue to benefit from the halo effect of their association with Gates, which has proved priceless throughout the pandemic, especially at a crucial juncture in its first year.

On May 29, Donald Trump announced U.S. withdrawal from the WHO. This was in response, he said, to China’s “total control” of the agency. The drug industry, meanwhile, was displeased with the WHO for entirely different reasons. The same day, the WHO director general had unveiled the C-TAP with a “Solidarity Call to Action” for governments and companies to share all intellectual property related to Covid-19 treatments and vaccines. The pharmaceutical companies didn’t attack the initiative directly. Instead, their global trade association, the IFPMA, preempted the announcement with a livestreamed media event on the evening of May 28. The event featured the heads of AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, and Pfizer, and Thomas Cueni.

The evening’s sixth participant was the specter of Bill Gates.

As anticipated, the questions submitted by journalists touched repeatedly on the much-anticipated launch of C-TAP the following morning, as well as related issues of intellectual property, vaccine access and equity, and debates over the extent and ways intellectual property posed barriers to ramping up production. Mostly, the executives evinced ignorance and surprise over the imminent launch of C-TAP; only Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla openly denounced the pooling of intellectual property as “dangerous” and “nonsense.”

All of the executives, however, shared a playbook in which they quickly pivoted to affirmations of their support for Bill Gates and the ACT-Accelerator. The association with Gates was submitted as evidence of industry commitment to equity and access—as well as proof of the complete lack of need for overlapping or competing initiatives, such as the “dangerous” C-TAP. 

We already have platforms,” Cueni said during the May 28 event. “The industry is already doing all the right things.” 

As the questions about C-TAP and intellectual property piled up, the industry’s Gates rap started to sound less like a shared P.R. script than a broken record. Confronted for the second time about intellectual property, GlaxoSmithKline CEO Emma Walmsley emitted an undigested stream of Gatesian word salad. “We are absolutely committed to this question of access,” she stammered, “and deeply welcome the formation of ACT, which is this multilateral organization that is going to be a mechanism with multiple stakeholders, whether it’s heads of state or organizations like [the Gates-funded] CEPI or the Gates and [the Gates-funded] Gavi and others and the WHO, of course, where we actually look at these principles of, uh, access and so clearly, we’re engaged in that as well.”  

Without the Gates and COVAX associations to lean on, the stammering would have been much worse. Pfizer’s Albert Bourla seemed to recognize this, at one point interrupting himself to express his industry’s gratitude and admiration. “I want to take the opportunity to emphasize the role that Bill Gates is playing,” he said. He went on to call him “an inspiration for all.

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