Rethink Trade
Published in

Rethink Trade

Latest Podcast: WTF? WTO Still Blocking End to the Pandemic

Rethinking Trade with Lori Wallach

Photo by israel palacio on Unsplash

In this episode, Lori talks with a leading public health expert about how we could END the pandemic and how World Trade Organization monopolies for Big Pharma are blocking that. Health GAP director Asia Russell, who helped bust Big Pharma monopolies to get HIV-AIDS meds to people worldwide, lays out the current COVID situation worldwide and what actions can end the pandemic.


Lori Wallach  0:12  
In this episode of Rethinking Trade, I'll be talking with a leading global health expert to get the latest on the COVID pandemic, and the actions needed to end it, including actions at the World Trade Organization.

Hello, Asia Russell. Today we are really fortunate to have Asia join us. She is the executive director of Health GAP, which is the Global Access Project and is a veteran of decades of fighting for equitable access to medicines, is one of the people who really was on the frontlines of the fight to get HIV-AIDS medicines to people around the world. Asia, welcome to Rethinking Trade.

Asia Russell 0:58
Thanks so much, Lori, it's a pleasure to be with you.

Lori Wallach 1:01
I really appreciate your coming to speak with everyone because I have learned such a ton from you myself. So I wondered if you could just situate us with a little bit of what's happening here for sure, but around the world, because I think a lot of people in the U.S., our heads are kind of in a different place than where most people are on COVID at this point.

Asia Russell 1:25
Unfortunately, while everyone wants this nightmare to be over, it's far from over. Unfortunately, around the world. We're still very much in the grips of the devastation from unvaccinated, untreated, unmanaged COVID. And communities are still very much in the grips of the knock on harms from paralyzed economies, lockdowns, from acute impoverishment. And we know all of those things, whether that's in communities in the United States or in other high-income countries, or whether it's communities in the Global South.

Lori Wallach 2:12
I think for a lot of people in the United States, anyone here at this point can get a shot if they want a vaccine. Let's do a snapshot worldwide. 50% of the world is vaccinated. Talk to us about what percentage of people in Africa, what percentage of people in low-income countries, because I don't think that's sunk into folks.

Asia Russel 2:30
Yeah, across Sub-Saharan Africa, virtually no country is on track to vaccinate, except for Botswana, the globally agreed-upon target of vaccinating 40% of their population by the end of 2021. And virtually none are on track to achieve the very achievable target of 70% of their population by the middle of 2022. Instead, what we see is high single-digit and low double-digit coverage across the continent with those less effective vaccines. So essentially, almost no shot at herd immunity, when the data clearly point out that the prevention against death and severity of illness is what is the most important aspect of vaccination. You're absolutely right. Many people in the US have closed their eyes to this fact.
The frozen economies, the harm to trade, the harm to businesses, the harm to families, because of lockdown has essentially resulted in several decades, the equivalent of several decades of a backsliding in development, at the same time that the world declared that poverty should be eliminated by 2030, As part of the vision of what's called the Sustainable Development Goals. Well, that went out the window. Because, unfortunately, President Biden other global leaders have refused to do everything in their power to put the lives of people around the world ahead of the profit motives of pharmaceutical industries, who have been deeply subsidized with corporate welfare, to bring vaccines but also treatments to market. Those treatments are being aggressively hoarded by the richest countries, with the US first in line. And that is completely unnecessary. We have the means to make all of these what should be public goods available to all. But it's really fealty to Big Pharma that has caused Biden to blink and to hesitate in the face of that possibility. And we just see what are now years of the harms as a result of those disastrous decisions. And that's particularly playing out in the Global South.

Lori Wallach 4:53
It is in the interest of the rich countries that have to date been monopolizing these not just vaccines, but treatments to get the entire world vaccinated, get the entire world treated, because we may be doing better with Omicron. And then who knows what the next variant is until everyone is actually vaccinated And we can try and get the viral load down, we're just going to have wave of variant after variant, economic chaos after economic chaos. And so the perversion of these government-subsidized U.S. and European German-based companies being allowed to monopolize access to the medicines that could actually save us all, is truly obscene.

Asia Russell 5:44
Yeah and it's... I guess you can only make sense of it if you think about the haze of intense pharmaceutical greed, coloring all of your decisions, rather than basic self interest. And I think no one is surprised by what pharmaceutical companies are doing. But of course, we are all shocked. And we're shocked and not just that they are willing to compromise everyone's safety and economic livelihood to the degree that they have, but we are more profoundly shocked that policymakers at the highest level of US government are not calling them into check. The reason behind that is nothing short of absolute fealty. President Biden was elected because people recognized that he expressed a commitment to lead and to show backbone and to stand up and to make hard choices. And if not now, when? This is the definition of doing the right thing in the face of adverse adversity. Unfortunately, he is getting bad advice from people like his his top COVID advisors, his chief of staff.
So, Jeff Zients. I mean, Jeff Zients needs to be fired, frankly. And I don't say that blithely. But when someone is actually someone who comes from profound privilege and wealth, obstructs bad advice, we have to think, in the face of evidence in a way that actually harms the reelection chances of this president – because that is what is happening – we have to look at the cold, hard facts and actually say, you know what, it's better to have someone in that seat who understands the the threat of inaction. He does not. In fact, the advice he is getting is from the CEOs of Moderna and Pfizer, who are extremely close to the administration, just as they've been very close to Republican administrations. And he's not listening to anyone else. He thinks it's sufficient to say, well, we're doing more than any other country. Well, when you're talking about a drop in an ocean, more doesn't matter a hell of a lot. It's hazardous and the hazard compounds with every day that, for example, the Defense Production Act is not used in order to expand, in order to expand global supply of life-saving therapeutics and vaccines for COVID-19.

Lori Wallach 5:45
I'm nominating Asia Russell. So now Asia Russell is the US coordinator of the COVID response. What do you tell President Biden? How the hell do you get us out of this Asia?

Asia Russell 8:42

On day one, a global announcement to the world that obstruction to temporary waiver of any intellectual property, patent data exclusivity, any other monopoly barrier standing in the way of production by all production sources, so any company must end. So what we've seen is for many, many months, several European governments, the UK, Germany, obstructing obscenely, a sound proposal led by India and South Africa calling for a temporary suspension of protection and enforcement of intellectual property rights, which is exactly the kind of creative and frankly war footing that we need. I rarely use violent comparisons, but that's the country has done in the past is actually say, you know what, this is an emergency. We are changing up business as usual. So the first thing that I would advise the president to do is cut through on what's essentially been a fence sitting by his administration on the issue of what's known as the TRIPS waiver, and for him to announce to the world that he is serious about spending political capital to stop the UK and Germany and a few other minority of governments from obstructing that legal certainty that countries need, that if they break intellectual property monopolies, they will not be punished globally, and they will be protected nationally.

Lori Wallach 10:12
So what Asia is talking about is this very sensible South African-Indian idea, which is hello, we're facing a zombie apocalypse, let us temporarily wave, in the face of the COVID emergency, these monopolies that the WTO requires all 150 WTO signatory countries to impose, so that handful of pharmaceutical companies can control if, where and at what price these meds are made and sold. So the first thing is waiving this bizarre in-a-trade agreement, not free trade, but monopoly power Pharma rigged to get it possible for this technology to be produced in more places to get the supply up. So number two?

Asia Russell 10:54
Number two is to bring that lesson right to the US. That is, to insist on full technology transfer right now. Not in two years, as Big Pharma keeps promising, but full technology transfer right now to generic suppliers in order to expand truly available supply – not supply that's ported somewhere for a future round of boosters – but available supply that's globally distributed. And if Pharma says no, we are not going to do what you ask, mandate that it happen. Compel technology transfer.
At the highest levels of government in the US, we've seen that announcing that this is going to be what takes place, in fact, terrifies the pharmaceutical industry and compels them to the negotiating table. So more than 20 years ago, ironically, it was the Bush administration that was far out ahead of what Biden is doing now, when it came to access to life-saving, a triple combination of patent protected AIDS medicines. So we saw at the height of anthrax scares right after September 11, the head of Health and Human Services wanted access to ciprofloxacin, which was patent-protected by Bayer Pharmaceuticals then. And Tommy Thompson wanted medicine to protect Americans. And he said, you know what will break your patents if you don't come to the negotiating table. And it worked. Just a few weeks later, Zimbabwe led efforts to try to get the same kind of assurances at the World Trade Organization in the lead up to the Doha ministerial. And the Bush administration climbed down and they said, You know what? You're right. We don't want to be hypocrites. And that's the lesson that Biden is missing. So on day two, that's what he must do. He must actually play hardball with Pfizer and Moderna. He has fundamentally refused to do that. And that's been what's so disappointing, I think, to so many in the US and around the world. We know, for example, Moderna, which only has a vaccine because of corporate wealth, because of public subsidy, the generosity of the American people, the American government, that's why we have this vaccine today. They are sitting on untapped capacity. Lori, it's disgusting. They claim that they can't do more, but it's actually a lie. And it's basic supply and demand. They know when there's scarcity, they can charge whatever they want. So the market makes this problem worse. And that's exactly why we need elected officials to negotiate and to push. And then we also have legal tools available. I mean, we've seen the White House press secretary say again and again from her post that White House lawyers have looked into this and they don't think that they can actually rattle sabers and insist, you know, really bring Pfizer Moderna forward whether they want it or not. Well, that's just simply not true. They're not being creative enough. We know they can find a solution. So compelling that technology transfer to get us through this artificial scarcity is incredibly important, because I'll tell you, just like another variant might be unfortunately right around the corner, we also know nationalism and hoarding is right around the corner. We're seeing that happen with the new outpatient antiviral treatments that will hopefully transform management of this disease. Already, the US has bought up more than the lion's share of supply of an outpatient antiviral that Pfizer calls Paxlovid, which can be made cheaply by generic competitors across the world. Instead, we're trapped in another nightmare scenario of having just a few million doses already vacuumed up by the US government.

Lori Wallach 14:58
So there is a recipe that Asia has, and everyone's starving. And so what the technology transfer boils down to is the government saying to the hoarders of the recipe, yo, there are a lot of kitchens, and we are going to feed everyone. So you guys are going to have to share the recipe. And if you don't, there various things we're going to do to you. The statute under which they really can compel, certainly within the US, access, this kind of transfer of the recipe, is a thing called the Defense Production Act. So you've heard on TV DPA, Defense Production Act in the news, that is a statute that in like a wartime footing and a crisis, the US government has this ability, and they're just being politically unwilling to exercise the power they have. Asia said basically, you know, you don't generally have to do it, you just have to say you're gonna do it. And they realize, these companies realize, better to negotiate the terms than to get steamrolled.

Asia Russell 15:57
Yeah. And it's astonishing to think that the Bush administration potentially had better negotiators with Big Pharma than the Biden administration, who claims to be a dealmaker. The administration must recognize they're the most powerful people in the room when they sit down with the heads of Moderna and Pfizer and start acting like it, and the world will thank them. And the reality is Pfizer and Moderna are not going to pick up their toys and go home. On the contrary, they will step into line. I think, unfortunately, the the hesitation might be a little more sinister than even we hesitate to think, which is a concern that drug companies are whispering in the COVID czar, Jeff Zients' ear, which is that they do not want a precedent to be set. They do not want people to think about this, when we think about the deadly spiraling upward spiraling costs of something like insulin, where Pharma greed is, is killing Americans, because people are rationing their insulin. And it's on the shoulders of politicians to come up with better ideas if the status quo is killing people.
And unfortunately, that's exactly what's happening right now. So that's part of what's holding the administration back, is they want to do anything else possible, because they don't want to let the genie out of the bottle, that high drug prices are baked into the system of medical R&D in this country, and that we need better ways to address this that frankly do put bold ideas on the table. That's something that crosses parties. It is non-partisan. So again, this sort of short-sightedness that's really driving Pharma is kind of spilling over, infecting the thinking and the approach of the administration. They need to take a cold, hard look at that. I would again argue fire Jeff Zients, because there must be more creative, practical solutions put on the table.

Lori Wallach 17:59
Any last things you want to tell people about what they can do now going from Asia, the COVID czar to Asia, the amazing kick-ass activist and organizer, strategist. Anything you want to tell people they ought to be doing right now to get the outcome you just described?

Asia Russell 18:16
It can be really paralyzing. We all feel isolated from one another and overwhelmed with fear and really grief about what this epidemic has done to our communities, but how we've seen politicians let us down. And the antidote to that fear and that anxiety is action, and is being a part of the extraordinary social justice movements around the world that are not taking no for an answer and are working together to hold our elected officials accountable. Because we know that power, truly seeds nothing without a demand. And what I know as an AIDS activist is ordinary people who are the most harmed by Big Pharma greed, those are the people who actually transformed history, and were the Davids challenging Goliath. So I think the good news is that we can all be a part of incredibly effective efforts to transform history. And you can check out the People's Vaccine, an amazing global movement. You can check out my organization, Health GAP, go to You can look at the work that many, many, many social justice organizations are doing around the world, and reach out, because we need your help. We need your brilliance and your leadership. And everyone can play a part in fighting back, so that we transform this nightmare and we actually come out the other end with systems of medical R&D that serve communities better than they have for decades and decades.

Lori Wallach 20:01
And that's the perfect place to leave our guest, Asia Russell. Not only can we help end the pandemic and reverse the economic health, social disruption that we have been visited upon for several years, but if we get our act together and do it right by making our political leaders do what is necessary, we can leave in place after this catastrophe, a better world ready to be able to take on the next challenge, the next pandemic, the next crisis, with access for people around the world equitably for the medicines we take for granted here.
Thank you very much Asia Russell, the Executive Director of Health GAP.




Good jobs & fair markets, strong consumer & environmental protection & real democracy. Replace corporate-rigged trade policy.

Recommended from Medium

June 29th Pandemic Predictions

444 new deaths due to coronavirus in Iran within 24 hours

444 new deaths due to coronavirus in Iran within 24 hours

COVID19 Cases in Chicago

SIPTU condemns NAS management for failure to pay members’ wages in full

A Plea to Get Vaccinated

Covid-19 Testing. Still Complicated.

SIPTU welcomes the commitment from Minister Harris to address Union members concerns over the…

COVID-19 In Developing Countries: The Vaccine Proxy War

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Rethink Trade

Rethink Trade

Rethink Trade is for good jobs & fair markets, strong consumer & environmental protection & real democracy. Replace corporate-rigged trade policy!

More from Medium

Ingenuity as Infrastructure: Making Bus Systems Resilient to Heat

The Evolution of Alex Levy

Ocean Acidification: A Potential Threat To Ours And Future Generations

An environment activist in the street raising signage that says “ Act Now or Swim Later”

Building better resilience to desert locust and other transboundary threats amid the climate crisis