Skip to main content

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 5 - Gates defused the real issue of decolonizing global health

By 1999, Bill Gates was in his final year as CEO of Microsoft, focused on defending the company he founded from antitrust suits on two continents. As his business reputation suffered high-profile beatings from U.S. and European regulators, he was in the process of moving on to his second act: the formation of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which commenced his unlikely rise to the commanding apex of global public health policy. His debut in that role occurred during the contentious fifty-second General Health Assembly in May 1999. 

It was the height of the battle to bring generic AIDS drugs to the developing world. The central front was South Africa, where the HIV rate at the time was estimated as high as 22 percent and threatened to decimate an entire generation. In December 1997, the Mandela government passed a law giving the health ministry powers to produce, purchase, and import low-cost drugs, including unbranded versions of combination therapies priced by Western drug companies at $10,000 and more. In response, 39 drug multinationals filed suit against South Africa alleging violations of the country’s constitution and its obligations under the WTO’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, or TRIPS. The industry suit was backed by the diplomatic muscle of the Clinton administration, which tasked Al Gore with applying pressure. In his 2012 documentary Fire in the Blood, Dylan Mohan Gray notes it took Washington 40 years to threaten apartheid South Africa with sanctions and less than four to threaten the post-apartheid Mandela government over AIDS drugs

Though South Africa barely registered as a market for the drug companies, the appearance of cheap generics produced in violation of patents anywhere was a threat to monopoly pricing everywhere, according to the drug industry’s version of Cold War “domino theory.” Allowing poor nations to “free ride” on Western science and build parallel drug economies would eventually cause problems closer to home, where the industry spent billions of dollars on a propaganda operation to control the narrative around drug prices and keep the lid on public discontent. The companies suing Mandela had devised TRIPS as a long-term strategic response to the south-based generics industry that arose in the 1960s. They had come too far to be set back by the needs of a pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa. U.S. and industry officials paired old standby arguments about patents driving innovation with claims that Africans posed a public health menace because they couldn’t keep time: Since they could not be relied on to take their medicines on a schedule, giving Africans access to the drugs would allow for the emergence of drug-resistant HIV variants, according to industry and its government and media allies.

In Geneva, the lawsuit was reflected in a battle at the WHO, which was divided along a north-south fault line: on one side, the home countries of the Western drug companies; on the other, a coalition of 134 developing countries (known collectively as the Group of 77, or G77) and a rising “third force” of civil society groups led by Médecins Sans Frontières and Oxfam. The point of conflict was a WHO resolution that called on member states “to ensure equitable access to essential drugs; to ensure that public health interests are paramount in pharmaceutical and health policies; [and] to explore and review their options under relevant international agreements, including trade agreements, to safeguard access to essential drugs.

Western countries saw the resolution as a threat to the recent conquest of monopoly medicine, achieved four years earlier with the establishment of the WTO. The industry grew increasingly helpless, however, as global public opinion and WHO member-state sentiment shifted in favor of the resolution and against the South Africa lawsuit. In the weeks leading up to the assembly, the companies and their parent embassies floundered as they sought to turn the tide. Their growing anxiety is captured in a series of leaked cables sent to Washington by the U.S. ambassador in Geneva, George Moose, that April and May. In a diplomatic telegram dated April 20, Moose expressed alarm over the growing number of WHO delegations making

Moose was concerned that drug companies were not helping their own cause and seemed incapable of doing anything but parrot old talking points about intellectual property as the driver of innovation. The pharmaceutical industry, Moose wrote, 


Over the course of weeks, a picture emerges from Moose’s accounts of a pharmaceutical industry against the ropes, punch drunk and out of ideas. In the U.S. ambassador’s view, the problem wasn’t moral bankruptcy so much as incompetence. “RECOMMEND THE USG PUSH THE PHARMACEUTICAL INDUSTRY TO ARGUE ITS POINTS MORE CONVINCINGLY IN DEVELOPING COUNTRIES,” the exasperated ambassador wrote. “AND ESPECIALLY DEAL WITH THEIR CONCERNS ABOUT LOCAL DRUG AVAILABILITY AND PRICING.

Following the raucous buzz saw of the 1999 WHO Assembly, the drug companies would make a humiliating climbdown from their scandalous lawsuit in South Africa, reduced to what The Washington Post called “close to pariah status.”  

At the same time, the industry was richer than ever. The Clinton administration had approved a long Big Pharma wish list, from broadening the avenues for privatizing government-funded science to opening the age of direct marketing of prescription drugs. The corresponding profits went to reinforce already historically rich D.C. and Geneva lobbying operations. And yet, for all their combined might, the companies were incapable of producing a mask resembling a credible human face. A global activist movement continued to gather public opinion on its side and chip away at the legitimacy of the monopoly model that underlay the industry’s enormous power. By every nonfinancial measure, it was an industry in distress. To borrow a phrase from a future Bill Gates production, you might say it was waiting for its Superman.

When Moose was ringing the alarm over the future of TRIPS in the spring of 1999, Gates was preparing to fund the launch of a public-private partnership called Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, with a seed grant of $750 million, marking his arrival in the worlds of infectious disease and public health. At the time, he was still best known for being the richest man in the world and the owner of a software company engaged in anti-competitive practices. This profile didn’t mean much in a raucous WHO Assembly hall packed with civil society groups and G77 delegations, which together booed the U.S. delegation when it tried to speak. At most, it was a source of brief consternation when officers from the William H. Gates Foundation began distributing a glossy brochure touting the role of intellectual property in driving biomedical innovation. 

James Love, who organized many of the civil society events around the 1999 Assembly, remembers seeing the Gates staffers joined in the distribution effort by Harvey Bale, a former U.S. trade official serving as director general of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Associations.

It was this nice full-color pamphlet about why patents don’t present an access problem, with the Gates Foundation logo at the bottom,” says Love. “It was strange, and I just thought, ‘OK, I guess this is what he’s doing now.’ Looking back, that’s when the pharma-Gates consortium set the markers down on intellectual property. He’s been sticking his nose into every intellectual property debate since, telling everyone they can go to heaven by paying lip service to a few discounts to poor countries.”  

Following the 1999 WHO Assembly, the industry tried to salvage its reputation by offering African countries discounts on the antiretroviral combination therapies that cost $10,000 or more in rich countries. The compromise prices it offered were still outrageously high, but even raising the issue of price concessions was too much for Pfizer, whose representatives stormed out of the industry coalition on principle. Public opinion swung harder against the companies, the result of a loud, ingenious, and effective direct-action campaign. Similar to the first months of the Covid-19 pandemic, there was a sense of possibility—a hope that a forced breakdown of a morally obscene and bloodstained system was within grasp. 

The movement was very focused and successfully building pressure for structural, more decisive solutions into the aughts,” says Asia Russell, a veteran HIV-AIDS activist and director of Health Gap, an HIV medicines access group. “And just when we started to secure some progress, a new version of the industry narrative emerged from Gates and Pharma. It was all about how pricing policies, generic competition, anything that interferes with industry profits, will undermine research and development, when the evidence shows that that argument doesn’t hold water. Gates’s talking points aligned with those of the industry.

Adds Manuel Martin, the Médecins Sans Frontières policy adviser, “Gates defused the real issue of decolonizing global health. Instead, drug companies could just give money to his institutions.

Even after the drug companies withdrew their lawsuit against the South African government and Indian-made generics began flowing to Africa, Gates stayed cool toward compromises that he saw as threats to the intellectual property paradigm. This included his attitude toward the Unitaid Medicines Patent Pool, a voluntary intellectual property pool founded in 2010 that enlarged access to some patented HIV/AIDS medicines. Though not a complete answer to the problem, the MPP was the first working example of a voluntary intellectual property pool, one that many observers expected to serve as a model framework for the WHO-administered Covid-19 pool.

Brook Baker, a law professor at Northeastern University and senior policy analyst for Health GAP, says Gates has always been wary of the Unitaid pool as going too far in the direction of infringing on intellectual property.

Initially, Gates was unsupportive and even hostile toward the AIDS Medicines Patent Pool,” says Baker. “He brought that hostility to relaxing industry’s iron-fist control over its technologies into the pandemic. His explanation for rejecting models to counteract this control never added up. If I.P. isn’t important, why are companies refusing to voluntarily give it up when it could be used to expand supply in the middle of the world’s worst public health crisis in a century? It’s not important, or it’s so important it has to be closely guarded and protected. You can’t have it both ways.


Popular posts from this blog

Killing Gaza: Documentary by Dan Cohen & Max Blumenthal shows life under Israel's bombs and siege

The Grayzone   In the feature-length documentary film "Killing Gaza," journalists Dan Cohen and Max Blumenthal documented Israel’s 2014 war on Gaza.  Yet this film is much more than a documentary about Palestinian resilience and suffering. It is a chilling visual document of war crimes committed by the Israeli military, featuring direct testimony and evidence from the survivors.  

From RussiaGate to UkraineGate: Route to Apocalypse

Corruption and supposed efforts to reduce it have become a neoconservative weapon of choice with which to operate the controls on the funding sluice gates to acolytes of the U.S.-led international neoconservative empire.   by Oliver Boyd-Barrett   Part 5 - Poroshenko and Zelensky   Ukraine’s two presidents since the 2014 coup, Petro Poroshenko (2014 to 2019) and Volodymyr Zelensky (2019 to the present), each started with strong support that quickly waned. The country has scarcely improved. Gross National Product peaked in December 2013; unemployment has increased from 7% to over 10%; Ukraine remains the second poorest country in Europe per capita. Corruption, the supposed key force behind popular support for the elections of both Poroshenko and Zelensky, continues to be rampant. Kiev’s policies of stand-off with Russia have been dramatically counter-productive and have deprived Ukraine of Crimea and control of major industrial areas of the Donbass. Some 14,000 lives have been taken, 1.

Illiberal Conservatism Comes to Greece

Under cover of the pandemic, Greece’s right-wing government has passed a slew of new measures to benefit the wealthy at the expense of workers, while massively expanding police powers. On the back of a decade of austerity, the latest laws are set to transform the country into a client state and playground for foreign tourists.   by Matthaios Tsimitakis/Mihalis Panayiotakis    Part 3 - Losing Control For more than six months now, practically all of Greece has been under strict lockdown and under curfew. Despite this, a deadly second wave mostly affecting the country’s north hit in the winter, and a third wave is now ravaging Athens, home to almost half the Greek population. Vaccination numbers remain relatively low due to the disastrous handling of vaccine procurement deals by the EU. Even now, the pandemic’s intensity shows no signs of abating. But even with the lockdowns — which offer diminishing returns and feed economic and psychological anguish — the health system remains on the ed

As the Left wins big in Chile, neoliberalism is about to suffer another decisive blow

globinfo freexchange   Sepúlveda Allende, a grandson of Chile’s legendary socialist President Salvador Allende, spoke with Ben Norton about the historic May 15/16 elections in which left-wing and independent candidates won two-thirds of the seats for a convention to rewrite the constitution, which dates back to the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.   Allende described the political situation in Chile after the fall of Pinochet's brutal regime. This is an interesting period because it  proves that what happened in the entire West, happened in Chile too.  As he pointed out: When the dictatorship ended, there was a kind of alliance made between the parties that historically had represented certain parts of the old left, like the Socialist Party of Allende. Another that was newly formed in that moment, which had not existed before the coup, called the Party for Democracy, which had (ex-President) Ricardo Lagos, and had a lot of power in that moment. There is also the C

The other epidemic killing Americans

People are dying at record rates from opioid overdoses, and harm reduction advocates are asking the Biden administration to overhaul how it deals with the crisis.   by Michelle ChenTwitt  Part 2 - Turning a Corner Though the pandemic has aggravated the opioid overdose epidemic, the Biden administration has signaled a shift in Washington’s approach to the crisis. The massive American Rescue Plan stimulus bill includes a tranche of $30 million dedicated to harm reduction services. That’s a tiny fraction of the $7.6 billion the federal government spent on the opioid overdose crisis in fiscal year 2019. But Beth Connolly, project director of the Substance Use Prevention and Treatment Initiative at Pew Charitable Trusts, said that as the first explicitly targeted federal funding for harm reduction, “ it really is a message and a step in the right direction. ”  The harm reduction provision in the relief package could boost federal support for syringe service programs (SSPs), which provide cl

Η φιλο-Ισραηλινή προπαγάνδα και οι ακροδεξιοί "τυφλοπόντικες"

globinfo freexchange   Η μονοδιάστατη κάλυψη των εγκλημάτων του Ισραήλ κατά των Παλαιστινίων στη Λωρίδα της Γάζας αλλά και στη Δυτική Όχθη από την εγχώρια μιντιακή χούντα, είναι εκκωφαντική.  Τα "Πετσωμένα" και μπουκωμένα με κυβερνητικό χρήμα συστημικά κανάλια και ιστοσελίδες, εκτός από τις επιχειρήσεις φιλοκυβερνητικής προπαγάνδας, ακολουθούν καταπόδας την φιλο-Ισραηλινή προπαγάνδα των Δυτικών ΜΜΕ.   Ο δημοσιογράφος Άρης Χατζηστεφάνου, σε πρόσφατο άρθρο του, αποκαλύπτει από πρώτο χέρι μερικά κομβικά στοιχεία της συγκεκριμένης προπαγάνδας:   Τι έχει μάθει τις τελευταίες ημέρες για τις εξελίξεις στη Μέση Ανατολή ένας ανυποψίαστος πολίτης, ο οποίος παρακολουθεί μόνο τα κυρίαρχα μέσα ενημέρωσης στην Ελλάδα και το εξωτερικό; Ότι ομάδες «Παλαιστίνιων τρομοκρατών» επιτέθηκαν με ρουκέτες εναντίον κατοικημένων περιοχών του Ισραήλ αναγκάζοντας τις ένοπλες δυνάμεις της χώρας να αμυνθούν χτυπώντας τις δυνάμεις των «τρομοκρατών» στη Λωρίδα της Γάζας. Το γεγονός ότι όλα ξεκίνησαν α

Day 785: Julian Assange still in prison

failed evolution   World's number one political prisoner, Julian Assange, still in high security prison for exposing horrendous war crimes carried out by the US imperialists and their allies.     

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

The billionaire class is a threat to Democracy

Since the pandemic began, America’s billionaires have seen their wealth skyrocket to an amount almost equal to a fifth of US GDP. This concentration of wealth is morally unacceptable — but it also represents a mortal threat to democracy.  by Luke Savage  It’s by now widely understood that the past twelve months have been a tale of two very different pandemics. Amid the countless stories of human misery buried in monthly unemployment figures, reports of widespread hunger, and tragic (though avoidable) deaths of frontline workers, COVID-19 has been a veritable bonanza for the tiny few at the commanding heights of the hyper-financialized global economy. Recent numbers published by the Financial Times underscore just how dramatic these gains have really been:                               Over the past two decades, as the global population of billionaires rose more than fivefold and the largest fortunes rocketed past $100bn . . . The pandemic has reinforced this trend. As the virus spread

The Pentagon seriously contemplated nuking China in 1958

Newly leaked documents show that US officials in 1958 cavalierly planned a nuclear strike on China over a handful of disputed islands. As Washington once more stokes tensions with China, it’s a reminder of the callous recklessness at the heart of US foreign policy.   by Branko Marcetic  Part 2 - Destruction for Dignity The plan, approved by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and developed before the 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis began, envisaged only two phases in the response to a Chinese attack: patrol and reconnaissance, followed by the defeat of Chinese forces, who would be “ countered by an American attack with atomic weapons against the Chinese mainland. ” The nuclear attacks would begin against Chinese air bases before moving incrementally up into the Chinese mainland as far north as Shanghai, as was discussed at one point. As the study took care to point out, the plan didn’t include any intermediate step involving conventional weapons: “ the phase immediately following patrol and reconnaiss