Episode 129: Vaccine Apartheid and US Media’s Uncritical Adoption of Racist “Intellectual Property” Dogma

Citations Needed | January 27, 2021 | Transcript

Citations Needed
51 min readJan 27, 2021
John Burkhardt, head of the Pfizer Groton site in Connecticut speaks at a press conference on Wednesday, July 22, 2020. (Credit: Stew Milne, AP)


Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

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Nima: “The COVID-19 vaccine is ripe for the blackmarket,” warns an NBC News opinion piece. “Iran-linked hackers recently targeted coronavirus drugmaker Gilead,” reports Reuters. “Hackers ‘try to steal COVID vaccine secrets in intellectual property war,’” blares a Guardian headline. As the COVID-19 pandemic raged and pharmaceutical companies raced to develop a vaccine, Western media routinely asserted without question or criticism the premise that vaccine “intellectual property” is a zero-sum possession that’s been “stolen” by malicious foreign actors, blackmarket criminals, and of course, dreaded “pirates.”

Adam: With rare exception, the conceit that intellectual property for the COVID-19 vaccine is a finite thing that can be leaked, spied on or stolen — presumably to the detriment of the average American, somehow — is simply taken for granted. Similarly, assumed across corporate media reports is the notion that it is the US government’s job — no, their duty — is to protect sacred American intellectual property. National security experts, weapons contractor-funded think tanks, and national security reporters uniformly decry the sinister and shadowy agents and adversaries out to snatch America’s hard-earned vaccine dominance.

Nima: Nowhere in all this fear mongering and hand-wringing is there any sense of the much greater injustice at work: that the vaccine is in fact hoarded by the security states of wealthy nations, secured for power and securitized for profit. It is virtually unquestioned that only some countries or companies should be allowed access to the knowledge of finding and developing a vaccine, and no consideration that, maybe, there’s no such thing as too many countries working toward the management and eradication of a deadly virus.

Adam: From this default capitalist — and as we will show, racist — mindset has emerged what activists have long argued would be inevitable: a global apartheid regime of vaccine access that tracks almost one-to-one with historical currents of colonialism. An extension of an IP regime that has cut off the Global South from other life-saving medicines for decades, exacerbating the devastating effects of epidemics such as malaria and AIDS.

Nima: In the wake of the George Floyd protests in the summer of 2020, much of American corporate media decided to audit their own internally racist practices, but for reasons of partisan expediency and capitalist ideology, this sudden concern for historical racism seems to have stopped at the water’s edge, and U.S. media has largely covered the emerging Vaccine Apartheid regime as an inevitable act of god, rather than springing from explicit white supremacist IP fetishization, codified and defended by leaders of both American political parties. Indeed, if one were to place a map of when a country can expect to be fully vaccinated over the next few years on top of a map of economic exploitation, colonial extraction and capitalism-imposed poverty in the Global South, it would be an almost exact match. This emerging Vaccine Apartheid — while potentially complicated by Chinese soft power efforts to vaccinate the Global South — is not only inevitable, but the deliberate result of our 1990s-era, post-Cold War economic order created by the World Trade Organization.

Adam: On this week’s episode, we will trace the colonial origins of American media’s uncritical adoption of “intellectual property above all else,” why the WTO is functioning exactly how it was designed to, and how US corporate anti-racism discourse goes out its way to make sure discussions of white supremacy never examine the manifestly racist effects of the American and European-led capitalist order.

Nima: Later on the show we will be joined by Heidi Chow, Senior Campaigns and Policy Manager at Global Justice Now, a UK-based organization that mobilizes people for change and acts in solidarity with those fighting injustice, particularly in the Global South.

[Begin Clip]

Heidi Chow: Campaign success of the pharmaceutical industry to essentially stitch up the global rules to work in their favor in perpetuity and they were very savvy about it. They knew that sticking in these rules into a global trade agreement would mean that these rules would have teeth, that these rules would have the force of law behind them. And so now we have a situation where the intellectual property rights are now enshrined in such a way that no one can touch them, and no one has touched them for the last 20 years I would say.

[End Clip]

Adam: Before we begin, we want to clarify that this episode is specifically about the racial apartheid on a global scale, specifically black and brown countries, and the chauvinism of American media and how they cover it. We are not in this episode going to cover in detail, the racial discrepancies domestically. Although these are features of the same face, there are two sides of the same coin picture cliche.

Nima: Because there’s a macro-apartheid, as it pertains to the global scale, and especially with intellectual property, which we’re going to dig into, but also on the national level and even community level of a vaccine apartheid system. Who is getting vaccinated at much higher rates than others and why that is, and surprise, surprise, there’s often a racial component to that.

Adam: Yeah, racism is a fractal. You just keep zooming in, right? You go from the global setting, to the American setting, to the local, to the actual breakdown of the county to the hospital. And then within the hospital, there is also interpersonal racism, which is not even necessarily structural, which we don’t have time to get into. But CNN of all places, compiled a lot of data on this and has come up with some pretty depressing if not surprising results, a CNN analysis found in 14 states that vaccine coverage is twice as high among white people, on average than among black and Latino people. The analysis found that on average, more than 4% of the white population has received a COVID-19 vaccine, about 2.3 times higher than the black population and 2.6 times higher than the Hispanic population. And of course, this is compounded by the fact that black and Latino Americans are already dying from COVID at a rate three times what white Americans are. So not only do you have discrepancies, in terms of who’s actually dying from the disease, you have that compounded with or multiplied by the lack of vaccine access or vaccine privilege. This has a lot to do, there are a number of factors of why this is there is no concerted effort to get this to black and brown communities. A lot of this is based on one’s relationship with their primary physician. Poor people are far less likely to have primary physicians, or any doctor at all. A lot of it’s just connections who you know, do you know the right state senator or the right lobbyists?

Nima: Well, and also rich people it’s been reported on recently, and this will come as no surprise, have better access because of the doctors that they are in touch with that, as you were saying, Adam, but there are these like, literal five star service type medical clinics that the rich are getting, like, you have a gold card, and then you call and then you have access to all the best shit. It’s like the same reason why fucking Rudy Giuliani could get experimental treatment in a second. And yet entire communities are left without any access to treatment, let alone a vaccine. You know, the CNN analysis similarly found that “In Pennsylvania black people make up 13% of COVID-19 deaths, but only 3% of vaccinations. Pennsylvania also has the most striking disparity, white people have been vaccinated at four times the rate of black people when accounting for the population of each racial group.” So this is seen, as we’ve said, on a local level, it’s also seen internationally. So for instance, we see a headline in The New York Times at the beginning of this year, January 2021, that says this, “How Israel became a world leader in vaccinating against COVID-19.” And the article says that Israel has already given vaccinations to over 14% of its citizens, it credits its socialized health care system that it’s, you know, a small but wealthy startup nation, of course, and that they are employing digital technology very well and very effectively. But what is not discussed, of course, is that while Israel may be vaccinating its own population, in what it considers to be Israeli citizens. What it is not doing is it is not providing any vaccinations to the over 5 million people in the occupied territories, the people it is militarily occupying, and whose land it is colonizing. Palestinians are not getting vaccinated at those rates, they are not getting vaccinated at all, in terms of what Israel is allowing to get through. So you know, Israel says, well, it’s on the Palestinian Authority to vaccinate their own people. But Palestine, whether it’s the West Bank, Gaza, Palestinians are not in control of their own borders are not in control of their own trade or not in control of their own currency. And so it’s a ludicrous statement for Israel to be like, hey, that’s not our responsibility. Of course, it’s their responsibility, the responsibility of an occupying power. And so you see this kind of apartheid, vaccination style writ large, as we will now discuss, but also in that scale down sense at every single level, state, regional, local neighborhood.

Adam: Yeah, and of course, it’s a combination of poverty and class as well as the intersection with race which of course you can’t really separate. And even of course, if you tease out or account for every socioeconomic distinction, the disparities are still there. And they’re still very stark, especially in settler colonies like the U.S. and Israel. And so we’re going to talk about this, and how these systems exist on a much grander scale as well.

Nima: Yeah, it is really telling that wealthier countries that represent just 14% of the world’s population have already captured over 96% of the Pfizer vaccine and nearly 100% of the Moderna vaccine. So there is this idea of, you know, the haves and the have-nots at all of these levels.

Adam: So, to kick this episode off, we want to talk about, this is one of these discussions about what you’re not talking about, or context that’s omitted. So in 2004, there was an Onion headline, it’s a picture of a guy with long hair and a bong and it says, “Hippie Will Tell You What The Real Crime Is,” which is a lot of what I do on this show. This is a textbook definition of what we should be discussing that we’re not discussing and it’s a little bit more difficult to sort of prove a negative, as it were, to prove that we ought to be talking about something, but this is a perfect example of how media serves to create an ideological, walled garden where we can discuss things but only in a very limited context, and in this context, we are going to show how US corporate media, for the most part, and non-corporate media, PBS, NPR, they take for granted these very chauvinistic, racist assumptions about the sanctity of intellectual property.

Nima: Yeah.

Adam: With very, very little examination as to whether or not these are either morally sound or laws of man, they’re sort of given to us by god, when they’re not, they’re relatively recent and totally manufactured and they’re manufactured by colonial and supposedly post-colonial powers.

Nima: Well, yeah and it’s kind of a perfect distillation of what we mean by begging the question, right? So the idea that intellectual property is something that must be guarded and defended, especially when it comes to public and population health during a global pandemic, the assumption is that intellectual property must be secured at all costs, and elevated, in fact, into a national security issue, which is why you see time and again, national security reporters writing articles about how the bad guys in the world are trying to steal the good guys’ research. So during the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve been seeing this almost from the very beginning. Back on May 10, 2020, The New York Times ran this headline: “U.S. to Accuse China of Trying to Hack Vaccine Data, as Virus Redirects Cyberattacks.” The subheadline is this: “Iran and other nations are also looking to steal data and exploit the pandemic with attacks on infrastructure, officials say.” So here, of course, you have this idea that the bad countries, China, Iran, other nations, are out to steal and exploit — of course, Iran under a brutal sanctions regime that was ramped up during the Trump era and during the COVID-19 pandemic, to ensure that medicine doesn’t even reach the Iranian people so there’s that — but NPR’s All Things Considered did a piece on this report the very next day May 11, 2020, called “U.S. Officials: Beware Of China And Others Trying To Steal COVID-19 Research,” and started off like this:

[Begin All Things Considered Clip]

Mary Louise Kelly: We know researchers worldwide are racing to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus. As this competition plays out the US intelligence community is warning American firms to exercise extreme caution in safeguarding their research. US officials say China has been aggressively stealing cutting edge medical technology for years. Now, any information on a possible vaccine would be a huge prize.

[End All Things Considered Clip]

Nima: These types of stories proliferated over the spring and summer of 2020. On May 14 in the Wall Street Journal you have this headline, “U.S. Says Chinese, Iranian Hackers Seek to Steal Coronavirus Research.” In July it was the BBC saying, “Russian spies target COVID-19 vaccine research.” The same day, July 16. The New York Times version of that story was headlined, “Russia Is Trying to Steal Virus Vaccine Data, Western Nations Say.” And later that month, Politico reported, “DOJ says Chinese hackers targeted coronavirus vaccine research,” with a subheadline “A senior FBI official described the scale and scope of Chinese government-directed hacking as ‘unlike any other threat we’re facing today.’”

Adam: The worst of the worst bunch, which really packed in every one of these tropes into one article, was a Pentagon stenography write up in The New York Times from September 5, 2020 headlined, “Race for Coronavirus Vaccine Pits Spy Against Spy.”

“The intelligence wars over vaccine research has intensified as China and Russia expand their efforts to steal American work at both research institutes and companies.”

And then buried in this story this 1,900-word scare story about the evil Russians and Chinese stealing America’s hard earned IP, because we earn things, other people steal them, like the Klingons had to steal the technology, right? They’re sort of this, they’re not allowed to have any kind of innovation, only America does, so therefore, they steal it. Buried in this is this:

“American officials insist their own spy services’ efforts are defensive and that intelligence agencies have not been ordered to steal coronavirus research. But other current and former intelligence officials said the reality was not nearly as black and white. As American intelligence agencies try to find out what Russia, China and Iran may have stolen, they could encounter information on those countries’ research and collect it.”

Nima: Woopsies.

Adam: So, so, this is funny.

Nima: In their noble research efforts to find out what the baddies took, they may find out new things that the baddies know before they do.

Adam: Right. So, it’s such a great, I mean, that is a quintessential New York Times thing where buried in the 1,900-word piece about evil Russians and Chinese and Iranians taking our shit, they acknowledge, which is a huge story, because at that point I don’t think there had been an acknowledgement from quote-unquote “security officials” that the US was hacking other countries’ vaccine research, that that was the story, that was actually the news and the story, the idea that the evil Russians and Chinese were out hacking us had been old, had been around for months, not new, it’s sort of assumed to be true.

Nima: But it’s that now we’re hacking them back under this guise of trying to find out what they took as if it fucking matters.

Adam: We sort of stumbled across their information and we sort of took it because we really had no choice. So this is, this sort of sums up the problem here, which is we have multiple layers of problems. The first one, which we’ll spend a great deal of show talking about, is the idea that this should be proprietary at all, is simply just not interrogated, I mean, almost never addressed in any of these articles and not only that the sinister governments are trying to take it — presumably because they want to vaccinate their populations, right? It’s not even as if they’re stealing weapons technology to invade another country or stealing money to fund — I don’t know — evil terrorists. What are they going to do with the vaccine? They’re going to manufacture and distribute it, right? They’re going to vaccinate their populations. So, that sort of great, you know, when you have a like a libel suit, you have to show harm, at no point do any of these corporate media outlets show harm other than this kind of vague sense of national pride, or the assumption, which underlies all this, is this panicked, paranoid, I think, very right-wing premise that there’s a zero sum-ness to it, that if one Iranian lives because they stole America’s precious IP, then that somehow harms us. That hurts Joe Blow. And of course, the average person driving around listening to NPR is not going to give a shit about whether or not Russia or China has the vaccine or stole the vaccine.

Chris Krebs on ‘Face The Nation’, December 6, 2020 (Credit: CBS News)

Nima: But there’s another layer to this, right, Adam, which is that, in addition to all of that, it’s really, that the US government is trying to then defend the future profits of pharmaceutical companies, so that if Russia, China, Iran, all of these other quote-unquote “evil countries” have access to their own vaccines, they might be able to inoculate their populations and not be at the mercy of Western pharmaceutical firms and the nations that then will control that kind of distribution. I think you see this in terms of how the national security threat is then framed in these pieces. So then enhanced cybersecurity winds up being the way to deal with this, funneling even more money into the Defense Department. So for instance, on December 6, 2020, Chris Krebs, the former director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, was on Face the Nation and was asked by host, Margaret Brennan, this:

[Begin Face the Nation Clip]

Margaret Brennan: Homeland Security disclosed this past Thursday that cyber-attacks are underway at companies and government organizations involved in distributing the vaccine. IBM went public saying they were very sophisticated, which indicates that a country, another government was possibly behind it. Who has the ability and the intent to do something like that?

Chris Krebs: So the traditional powers, the big four of Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, we have seen to some extent all four of those countries doing some kind of espionage or spying, trying to get intellectual property related to the vaccine and, in fact, just how we are doing as a country policy wise and in terms of health impact. What we have been thinking through, what we had been thinking through at CISA was not just the vaccine developers, but their entire supply chain and really trying to look through those for those critical weak spots. We called it the ball bearing strategy, looking for those key elements that could- could cause the entire process to collapse and that’s going to be critical going forward. So, it’s not just about Moderna and some of the others that are developing the vaccine, it’s their supply chains, it’s the distribution channels, public health institutions, those are the folks that we have to continue to spread cyber security support to from the national security community and from the private sector.

[End Face the Nation Clip]

Adam: Again, no sort of questioning of any fundamental basis that this is a national security issue. Again, they’re not stealing the blueprints to our nukes or they’re not stealing missile systems. This is something that’s —

Nima: Nothing that they do would then prevent U.S. companies from continuing to search for a vaccine, develop it and distribute it. This is all just spooky nonsense.

Adam: And of course, this all accepts the premise that intellectual property is what’s sacred. So, we need to take some time to talk about why that’s bad. Specifically, two things: Number one, why we are having this piracy, national security, panicked, fear mongering conversation they’ve had and have had for almost a year now, but two, we want to talk about the total lack of mainstream corporate media recognition that the IP regime, such that it exists and is created by the WTO, is manifestly a racist institution and that with all the sort of reconciling of racism in this country, or at least the sort of performance of, or theater of this last summer, it is amazing how little we talk about the white supremacy embedded into the DNA of the World Trade Organization and global trade policy, which we will show in this episode, that the efforts being led by black and brown countries, specifically South Africa and India, to get rid of these exploitative and racist regimes — and they’ve been doing this, by the way, with other things such as AIDS, which we’ll also get into — for decades, that in all this kind of reckoning and public discourse about racism, our definition of racism still does not leave the shores of this country.

We don’t think about these institutions as racist, but they are and they were invented by racists in very racist times and have very racist results and so The Economist published a map where excluding, again, excluding efforts by China to sell a cheap vaccine, but turns out that a Chinese vaccine may not be as effective as we thought some of the numbers are showing as little as 50 percent, so setting aside the soft power efforts by China to provide it to the Global South, we’re setting that aside, because that’s not the issue at hand in terms of how the West views this, that these European and American companies that set up the IP regime, The Economist released a map that showed when countries would get it, and all of Subsaharan Africa virtually was 2024, three years from now, if we’re lucky. Latin America was 2023, 2022. You look at this map, and it’s a racial map of the world, it is a map of black and brown countries being dead last, and white countries having a surplus amount of vaccines. Britain, for example, has a three to one ratio, they have three doses of the vaccine for every citizen they have. This is the definition of an apartheid regime, and yet, in all the conversations we have and have had about racial reckoning, we don’t center this as a racial justice issue. But now activists increasingly are doing so because it is and I know that we’ll get into that as well, but efforts by Chuy García, a legislator from Illinois in the US Congress, Bernie Sanders and his aide Keane Bhaat, efforts by CEPR [Center for Economic and Policy Research], Dean Baker, who we’ll also quote later, they are now saying that this is the most urgent racial justice issue right now is to get rid of these IP restrictions on the vaccine and the reason why that is, is because, Nima, of course, is that people want to be anti-racists until it starts affecting the basic structure of our global economic order and their personal bottom line, right? Nobody wants to really sacrifice anything. They want to go to seminars and get the self flagellation and sort of feel good about themselves, but when it comes to restructuring the economic global order, which is fundamentally predicated on racism and keeping poor countries poor, based on the legacy of colonialism, nobody really wants to touch that and thus far, Biden has made no comment on whether or not he wants to get rid of Donald Trump’s WTO policies with respect to the global vaccine apartheid. Now that may change by the time this airs and we’ll update it if it does, but our supposedly liberal, anti-racist savior Joe Biden doesn’t seem to give a shit either because, again, that would question the fundamental neoliberal order of intellectual property fetishization, which has been central to both parties’ economic policies since at least the 1990s.

Nima: So let’s back up for a second and, as we say on Citations Needed, ‘set the table.’ The current global intellectual property rules are not — surprise, surprise — the natural order of things, they are not divinely ordained. In fact, they are contingent and fairly recent. So, it’s important to establish that the global intellectual property regime in which, especially in this case, pharmaceutical companies have sole power to produce the patents that they own, again, is not a common sense part of the global order. It is very much the product of specific political forces, and as I said, this is not an age old thing. Things could have been otherwise and there have been plenty of people and entire countries around the world that have tried to envision a different way of approaching intellectual property. So, international IP enforcement was first codified among colonial powers, majority white European powers in the Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property. This was in 1883, about 140 years ago. This convention was revised a number of times since then, in Brussels in 1900, in Washington 1911, The Hague 1925, in London 1934, Lisbon 1958 and Stockholm in 1967. It was further amended in 1979.

Adam: TRIPS, which is the key factor here, the World Trade Organization’s agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, otherwise known as TRIPS, was signed in 1994 and implemented in 1995. This effectively brought the entire world under the intellectual property laws that were established by these white majority colonial powers. Note that there are some limited safeguards and protections for these TRIPS enforcement, one of which is supposed to be a pandemic, but this supposedly doesn’t qualify, but mostly TRIPS conforms to European and American model of intellectual property law. So this was, ana someone may listen to this and say, ‘Well, if these countries agreed to it, isn’t that fair?’ But you have to understand is that these countries, for the most part, can’t develop their economies without being able to import and export, more importantly, to these former colonial powers, so they sort of have no choice. This is why people in 1999 shut down the entire city of Seattle. This is why people protested the World Trade Organization because they knew it would lead to a racist apartheid regime in terms of wealth and wealth creation and the especially when it comes to things like pandemics and vaccines, access to drugs, and that turns out is exactly what happened, that they were correct. Pretty much every worst case scenario that was portended about the WTO ended up being the case.

Nima: “Hippies Will Tell You What The Real Crime Is.” Some really seminal writing has been done on this by Peter Drahos and John Braithwaite, both academics at the Australian National University in Canberra and they have written this:

“When TRIPS was signed by more than one hundred government ministers in April 1994, the United States, the European Community and Japan had the world’s dominant software, pharmaceutical, chemical and entertainment industries between them and the world’s most important trade marks. The rest of the world had nothing much to gain by agreeing to terms of trade for intellectual property that offered these countries so much protection.”

But before the implementation of TRIPS, it was not really just assumed that all the countries should adhere to the exact same intellectual property rules. For instance, Indian Prime Minister Indi­ra Gand­hi in 1992 told the World Health Assem­bly this, “The idea of a bet­ter ordered world is one in which med­ical dis­cov­ery will be free of all patents and there will be no prof­i­teer­ing from life and death.” End quote. India’s own patent laws, which had been passed decades earlier in 1970, actually allowed for the patenting of drug manufacturing methods but not the production of the actual drugs themselves. So in the US, if you have the patent only you can produce that drug, that is not what India set up, the method could be patented, but not the actual drugs. So, this gave rise to a booming generic drug industry in India which “began to produce quality essential drugs at a fraction of their price in Western markets,” as Drahos and Braithwaite have noted. So a lot of other countries just didn’t have any incentive, no real reason to recognize this newly imposed TRIPS intellectual property law.

Adam: So naturally, American corporations, especially pharmaceutical companies, grew concerned that this was eating into their profits. That Global South countries producing their own drugs would harm their bottom line. For example, India was supplying cheaper drugs to other countries like Nepal. So in the mid-1980s, Edmund Pratt, then-chairman of Pfizer, embarked on an aggressive mission to ensure that strong intellectual property protections were included in the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement of Tariffs and Trade, or GATT, talks with multinational trade negotiations that would result in the establishment of the WTO in 1995. Pratt was a pretty powerful person, even beyond his immediate corporate role, he also served on the advisory committee on trade negotiations for the Carter and Reagan administrations. In 1986, Pratt himself established the Intellectual Property Committee, IPC, which embarked on an intensive organizing effort, along with other industrial leaders, America, Europe, Japan, to make sure that IP was included in the GATT talks in the 1980s, which eventually is what became the World Trade Organization. As Drahos and Braithwaite note in their book Information Feudalism, which you should definitely read if you get a chance:

“Like the beat of a tom-tom, the mes­sage about intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty went out along the busi­ness net­works to cham­bers of com­merce, busi­ness coun­cils, busi­ness com­mit­tees, trade asso­ci­a­tions and busi­ness bod­ies. Pro­gres­sive­ly, Pfiz­er exec­u­tives who occu­pied key posi­tions in strate­gic busi­ness orga­ni­za­tions were able to enroll their sup­port for a trade-based approach to intel­lec­tu­al property.”

Nima: It was like a PR campaign, right? It’s this thing where they just kept, as they say, hammering that idea home and it spread and then there was advocacy from the business community about it as if this is a thing that should naturally be the case, you know, like a balanced budget for a nation, right? It’s like a deficit scold idea.

Adam: It was just sort of asserted as this natural law that you would have really extreme, unqualified IP protections because their argument they made to the media, as we’ll read when we read Pratt’s speech, was that they couldn’t innovate if they couldn’t return a profit during the time of intellectual property protection, whatever it was 10, 20 years.

Nima: So, part of this PR effort was the popularizing and then demonizing of this notion of piracy. So intellectual property piracy and the negative effect that that had, selling that notion was essential to this PR effort. So back to the writing of Drahos and Braithwaite, they have written this:

“On 9 July 1982, an op-ed piece bearing the title ‘Stealing From The Mind’ was published in the New York Times. Appearing under the name of Barry MacTaggart, then Chair and President of Pfizer International, its central charge was that US knowledge and inventions were being stolen. The culprits were other governments: Brazil, Canada, Mexico, India, Taiwan, South Korea, Italy and Spain. These governments, it was argued, designed laws allowing for US inventions to be “legally” taken… During the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, US corporations accused most Asian countries of “intellectual property piracy”.39 The strategy proved very effective because it drew on prejudices and anxieties within the US about the future economic security of the U.S. in a world where successful Asian “tiger” economies were on the prowl.”

Adam: Around the time in the late ‘80s, several countries in the Global South opposed adopting US-type intellectual property laws. One Christian Science Monitor article from 1986 notes, “Brazil and Argentina have spearheaded a group that has blocked U.S. attempts to include intellectual property protection in the new round of talks.” But the efforts of Pfizer and others ended up being effective as economist Dean Baker — Dean Baker is an economist at CEPR — told Sarah Lazare, who has written this show, and this is based on an article she wrote, by the way, he told In These Times for her article:

“TRIPS required devel­op­ing coun­tries, and coun­tries around the world, to adopt a U.S.-type patent and copy­right rule. Pre­vi­ous­ly, both had been out­side trade agree­ments, so coun­tries could have what­ev­er rules they want.”

So, while TRIPS includes some very limited protections and flexibilities, it essentially globalizes intellectual property standards, and includes patent monopolies for pharmaceutical companies.

Nima: Dean Baker actually wrote about this very thing in early December last year in The New York Times along with public health activist Achal Prabhala and another economist Arjun Jayadev in an opinion piece headlined this, “Want Vaccines Fast? Suspend Intellectual Property Rights.” It argued, as I’m sure it comes as no surprise, that that is the way to get the most vaccines available to the most people and as they say, “Otherwise, there won’t be enough shots to go around, even in rich countries.” Now, this PR effort in the ‘80s and ‘90s, to really push this idea of intellectual property really created this new trade regime that Pfizer, unsurprisingly, is now exploiting, much as it was designed, to deliberately undercut efforts to get cheaper vaccines to poor countries. So Pfizer, Moderna, pretty much the entire U.S. pharmaceutical industry, is going all out opposing a proposal currently put forward to the WTO by India and South Africa that they proposed back in October that would suspend enforcement of patents for COVID related treatments — seems pretty fucking obvious — but so far, the European Union, Great Britain, Norway, Switzerland, Japan, Canada, have successfully blocked this proposal. The proposal itself would allow for the expanded production of cheaper generic versions of the COVID vaccine, saving many thousands of lives obviously. The fact that this is not a given, this should have happened even before there were vaccines available, even before they were in process, obviously, this work should be done with open source data, shared intellectual property, working across governments, across countries, across companies: That should happen. The fact that countries are not scrambling to share as much vaccine info as possible is appalling, and yet, remember, this is not the inevitable state of things. Intellectual property rights are a thing that were determined to matter by the people who would profit most from them.

Adam: For decades, many others have argued that IP law is inherently neocolonial and is a product of neocolonialism, if not just colonialism, plain and simple. A University of Glasgow School of Law paper written in 2010 by Andreas Rahmatian said:

“An essential instrument in the process of neo-colonialisation by economic means is the establishment of a legal framework of international trade which confers legally enforceable rights that support and safeguard economic penetration and control. This includes, as a prerequisite for the making of an ‘informal empire’ like in colonial times, the creation of property rights and the guarantee of protection of foreign property rights in dependent regions. However, unlike in the colonial era, the most important property rights, which fulfill this role in the twenty-first century, are intellectual property rights. This is because intellectual property rights do not attach to nations. How Western in nature TRIPs effectively is, can be shown by the fact that Western national legal systems have had to adapt little to TRIPs, while, for example, Latin American and Carribean states had to make significant changes in their intellectual property laws to implement the minimum standards. More recently, TRIPs also serves as a bottom line for further extension of IP protection which the developed world continues to push for in bilateral ‘TRIPs-Plus’ agreements with countries of the developing world.”

And so here you have this fundamentally colonial, fundamentally racist setup here that every major quote-unquote “democracy” in the Global South — Brazil, India, South Africa, pretty much every African country there is — says, ‘Hey, this is super bad and racist, we should get rid of it,’ and it’s just simply not part of the conversation. So there’s now an effort, a grassroots effort to get Joe Biden, now that he’s in the White House, to backtrack on Trump’s approach to this Western Europe, Japan, other colonial powers’ approach to IP or to sort of loosen the rules a little bit and activist groups such as Doctors Without Borders, progressives in Congress, the National Coalition for Black Civic Participation, Speak Up Africa, countless activist groups have been begging for new President Joe Biden, and American leadership and American people in Congress to rethink the obsession with and the defense of intellectual property rights and to make sure that we begin to put it in racial terms, because those are the terms in which it was created.

Nima: As we’ve said, these kinds of calls to loosen or eliminate these IP law restrictions are not new. You saw something similar when the AIDS epidemic was ravaging South Africa and pharmaceutical companies were charging exorbitant amounts of money for the antiretroviral treatments that could have been made locally in South Africa for a fraction of the price distributed for a fraction of the price and yet they were prevented explicitly from doing so. Back in 1999, when Al Gore, then Vice President Al Gore, was hitting the campaign trail for the 2000 presidential election, he actually faced protests because of his opposition to freeing up patents for HIV and AIDS treatment in South Africa.

Adam: This is an article from The Guardian from 1999:

“The US pharmaceutical companies which hold the patents for many of the drugs challenged the law in the South African courts on the grounds that it infringed intellectual property rights. They also called on Washington to fight for their interests. Mr Gore took a leading role in negotiations with President Thabo Mbeki. According to a state department report last February, he played a key part in an ‘assiduous, concerted campaign’ to persuade the government of South Africa to change the law. The main drug manufacturers lobby, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (Phrma), is a contributor to the Gore campaign and one of its lobbyists is Anthony Podesta, the brother of the White House chief of staff John Podesta — a friend and adviser to Mr Gore.”

And so he was met with protests on the campaign trail by Act Up, the gay and AIDS activist group that now sort of lives in lore as a sort of product of courage, but they were fighting in solidarity with AIDS sufferers in Africa, and South Africa. So the suffering of people in the Global South from these conditions has always been inextricably linked to the defense of Big Pharma and the defense of intellectual property rights in the United States and attempts to reform these systems have been very token and useless at best, as evidenced by the fact that in the year 2020 and 2021, these major countries like South Africa and India are having to go hat in hand to the WTO and beg America and Europe, European countries, to stop defending these IP protections at the World Trade Organization. Now, one thing to note here is that it’s not even just about profiteering off the vaccine itself, because I think sometimes people assume that’s the end game. That’s actually, I think, a fairly small part of it and I think if you talk to activists, they don’t think that, Pfizer is not going to be making a ton of money directly off the vaccine and Moderna are not going to make a ton of money off the vaccine itself. What they don’t want to do is create a precedent. They don’t want to create what they view as being a slippery slope to situations where the maximizing of profit is somehow undermined and so this is a scenario where people are beginning to see this doesn’t make any sense. This doesn’t make any sense that we would prevent other people from manufacturing and producing a drug that could benefit millions of people and that’s a very dangerous slippery slope because so many of these people are obsessed with precedent and the general ideological framework around the protection of IP that they spent so many lobbying hours and money to set up in the ‘90s and you saw this with AIDS too, so we can’t do it because once we do that we got to do this and they got open it up for malaria drugs, you got over for, you know, for this, for cancer treatment, and that’s just not acceptable to these people and the sanctity of intellectual property, as somehow sacrosanct, something that can’t be undermined, is something that people just aren’t willing to criticize. So when US corporate media goes around, for the last, you know, nine months blaring headlines about evil hackers stealing intellectual property rights, and maybe, maybe, maybe for each hundred of those articles they have one where they have an op-ed or someone saying, ‘Well, you know, these things are a little bit mushy, and we’ve, they’re kind of new — ’

Nima: Yeah. Maybe people are dying, and vaccines are good.

Adam: ‘They’ve only been around since the ‘90s, these things aren’t that sacred, and people are dying,’ we just don’t get that, we get a very narrow picture about bring on the four star general, bring on the government contractor, bring on the weapons contractor-funded think tank, the cybersecurity expert, to talk about the evil foreigners out to get us, and meanwhile you have the situation where, and you see this on social media, the average person will read this and be like, ‘Wait a second, hold on.’ The “Hippie Will Tell You What The Real Crime Is,” right? The real crime is that this is something that can and has to be stolen at all.

Nima: The evil foreigners who are hoarding the vaccine are the Americans and Europeans who are deliberately preventing black and brown countries, countries that have historically been colonized, been invaded, been destroyed by those colonial powers, those are the foreign countries that are causing the problems. It’s not the Global South. To discuss this more, we’re going to be joined by Heidi Chow, Senior Campaigns and Policy Manager at Global Justice Now, a UK-based organization that mobilizes people for change and acts in solidarity with those fighting injustice, particularly in the Global South. She’ll join us in just a moment. Stay with us.


Nima: We are joined now by Heidi Chow, you can follow her on Twitter @hidschow. Heidi, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Heidi Chow: Thank you for having me.

Adam: So, let’s begin by discussing the stakes here because I think we always want to sort of establish what’s at stake and your organization, Global Justice Now, in concert, of course, with other activists has been trying to raise awareness around Big Pharma’s grip on vaccine production, distribution, and so-called intellectual property which we take a great deal of time at the top of the show, to use a grad school term, problematizing. Your organization lists several objections to this, I want to start off by kind of detailing what the kind of broad objections are to this regime specifically in the context of the COVID-19 vaccine. We want to go into some detail about what the Global South stands to suffer so people are clear at home that this is not just lefty hand wringing but there are real human lives at stake here.

Heidi Chow

Heidi Chow: Yeah, sure. So, yeah, so in the UK, and I’m sure in the US, you are seeing on the news stories about people getting vaccinated right now and how both of our countries are involved in a national vaccine rollout program, and I think for me this really stresses how important vaccines are to really play a big part to help end this pandemic, and so these vaccines are so important, they’ll be the tools that will actually help us get out of social restrictions and national lockdowns. So really, they should be considered to be global public goods, they should be produced in mass quantities available and affordable for all countries, and free to the public. But instead, what we’re seeing is that these vaccines have actually become the privately owned assets of an industry that is willing to sell to the highest bidder and this is in spite of the billions of public funds that have been poured into the research, to development, the manufacturing of these vaccines and this system, where these privately owned assets have been sold to the highest bidder, we’ve seen the deadly consequences of this because now we have a situation where rich countries like the UK, like the US, we now have secured enough vaccine doses to vaccinate our populations almost three times over meanwhile, people living in some of the poorest countries in the world are only one in ten of their population with access to a vaccine. And actually, some academic studies actually show that some low income countries could be waiting up to 2024 before they even get hold of any vaccines at all. So, we’re seeing this massive stark inequality about who gets access to the vaccine and therefore, who gets access to that hope of coming out of this pandemic, and the reason why we’re seeing rich countries hoarding these vaccines in advance, you know, a lot of them pre-booked these or ordered these vaccine supplies six months ago, five months ago, you know, over the last few months, they were kind of hoarding them in advance even before they were proved successful, even before they were proved to be effective and safe and approved by the medicines regulatory authorities. It’s because they knew they were facing a scarcity and the reason why we’re facing a scarcity is because we have a system that creates scarcity, in essence, for the pharmaceutical companies essentially have monopolies on all of these products. So, for example, only Moderna can make the Moderna vaccine, only Pfizer can make the Pfizer vaccine, because new drugs, new treatments, new vaccines are patented and a patent essentially means that no other company can make or sell that product for a minimum period of 20 years. And so when you kept out competitors, you essentially create a legal monopoly and in a situation of monopoly, companies are able to charge whatever price they think the market can bear and so that’s why they can charge the highest of prices, that’s why they can control the volumes. But they’re monopolies. So they’re monopolies are maintained through intellectual property rights and their monopoly status is also maintained by the fact that they also hold the technological know-how to make these vaccines. Now, I’m not a vaccine production expert by any stretch of the imagination, but manufacturing or replicating vaccines is a complicated process and so you do need the proprietary company to actually share their technological know-how if you want other companies to also make these vaccines. And so that’s the situation that we’re facing right now that actually, you know, logic would say that we’re in a global pandemic, though the need is unprecedented, we should be actually flooding the world with cheap, accessible, available vaccines for all countries. But that’s unfortunately the opposite of what we’ve got right now.

Adam: Yeah, I think one of the things, one of the barriers that we come up against, and we talked about this a great deal, and I’m sure you come across this as well, is that many, most of the media, at least here in the United States, I assume in UK as well, they frame the issue of intellectual property fidelity or fetishism, if you will, as a law of nature, like gravity or the tides, it’s just something that always is, and always will be, and it’s sort of, you know, you saw this all the time with dozens of headlines throughout the summer and the fall about people hacking the vaccine technology, and it was sort of done in a sinister way. Now, if it’s zero sum, there’s problems there, right? If you’re like physically stealing vaccines, I can understand why that’s a problem, but I mean, if you’re just stealing the quote-unquote “intellectual property,” I have a hard time getting too upset about that, because the real crime here is that we’re proprietary about life saving medicine. I want to take some time to sort of, without getting a little too dorm-room-bong-hit here, I want to sort of analyze the existential, or the sort of fundamental premises here about the sanctity of intellectual property, and how so much of our leaders in the media sort of take for granted these constructs that were largely invented by a kind of post World War Two and post Cold War more specifically, arrangements — WTO, TRIPS, all that fun stuff — and what you’re hearing activists are saying is that we have to sort of begin to deprogram this dogma to really kind of get to the core of the issue, and that these things are just things we made up. They’re not actual, they’re not commandments handed down by god.

Heidi Chow: Yeah, yeah, no, you’re right, I think you really hit the nail on the head and you talked about, you mentioned TRIPS, I’m not sure if your listeners know what TRIPS is, but TRIPS is the global trade agreement where the standards for intellectual property have been enshrined. And you know, for decades prior to TRIPS, the pharmaceutical industry were really active in lobbying for global standards, intellectual property, so that they could go into any part of the world and have strong intellectual property rights to protect their monopolies and so I think that they’ve actually been really successful, like you said, they’ve actually pushed this so that actually, the idea of intellectual property rights has become normalized, has become, like you said said, a law of nature. And actually, what we’ve seen that really deadly result of that is that we’ve seen time and time again, public health being sacrificed to protect this kind of, yeah, this dogma or this altar of intellectual property rights. And it was, like you said, completely a construct, and I would say, campaign success of the pharmaceutical industry to essentially stitch up the global rules to work in their favor, in perpetuity. And they were very, you know, they were very savvy about it, they knew that sticking in these rules into a global trade agreement would mean that these rules would have teeth, that these rules would have the force of law behind them. And so now we have a situation where the intellectual property rights are now enshrined in such a way that no one can touch them, and no one has touched them for the last 20 years, I would say. And so what I find really exciting is the proposal that’s being discussed at the World Trade Organization right now being put forward by the South African and Indian governments to actually suspend four chapters of the TRIPS agreement which covers patents, industrial design, copyrights and trade secrets, to suspend them in the current context of a global pandemic, to allow all countries to have access to the health tools and health technologies that they’re going to need to tackle this pandemic. And so for me, this proposal when it came onto the table in October, it was like the first time in two decades since TRIPS was set up that actually we are beginning to wake up and actually start to question, like you said, that law of nature.

Nima: Yeah, this idea that the capitalization of innovation is supreme over any kind of public benefit and that the kind of association between invention and ownership is so enshrined and I think that, you know, much of this criticism around what we’ve been calling vaccine apartheid, mirror those leveled by activists for years now, if not decades, right? This is sadly not a new scenario, you know, especially when we look at the issue of access to HIV and AIDS drugs in the Global South over the past number of decades. So obviously, there are differences here between HIV and AIDS and COVID-19 pandemic, but can we, Heidi, talk about some of the similarities here and maybe what previous examples of Big Pharma and WTO working against the interests of the poor and others in the Global South and what that kind of can tell us what we can learn from that and then how we can mobilize most effectively during this current crisis?

Heidi Chow: Yeah, I think you’re right, we do have a long history where we have seen this kind of global apartheid, like you said, the HIV crisis is a really key moment in kind of the struggle around access to medicines. In the mid 1990s, at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the new new treatments that came onto the market, they are these, the antiretroviral drugs, actually meant that for the first time, HIV could be managed, and it didn’t mean that you had a death sentence upon diagnosis but the drug companies were coming out with a price tag of $10,000 per person, per year, and at that kind of price level, I mean, it was expensive, even for rich countries, let alone for low and middle income countries. And so we saw that global apartheid emerge so visibly in the mid 1990s. So if you were living in the US or the UK, you could survive HIV, if you were living in the Global South, you would basically be waiting to die, essentially, and you would be watching your counterparts with the same condition in the rich countries being able to live a relatively normal life and the HIV struggle was a real crisis point and a real kind of moment where the world kind of saw for the first time of how the intellectual property system, how the pharmaceutical industry had created this stark inequality around access. But we’ve also seen it more recently as well, I mean, the issues that are underlying the system haven’t gone away and we’ve seen it in more recent years through other conditions. So for example, there’s a drug called sofosbuvir, which is a treatment for hepatitis C, and in fact, it could actually cure hepatitis C, I know that has been very expensive in the US and they’ve been real campaigns to get access to that drug in the US, and in the UK, we have a public healthcare system, but even our public healthcare system couldn’t afford this hepatitis C cure and so doctors were having to ration it to one in 20 people. So they would see 20 patients with hepatitis C, but only offer one patient the cure for it. We’ve seen it with the new biological drugs for cancer, cystic fibrosis, so, so the issues haven’t gone away, but I think what we’re seeing with COVID is that this tension in the system between profits and monopolies on one hand, and public health on the other hand, it’s really coming to the surface now because of the universal demand that has been created to access any effective COVID-19 treatments and the COVID-19 vaccines. And so, you know, I was really hoping actually, when this pandemic started, that this would be a really good opportunity for the world to kind of see, once again, the system breaking down and not being able to deliver the public health outcomes that we need from a global health innovation system. We saw back in 2009, during the swine flu pandemic, we had a similar situation where most of the rich countries had bought up almost all of the vaccine stocks in advance, you know, and leaving very little to none for the countries in the Global South and in the end, the rich countries realized they bagged too many doses and ended up giving, donating them to the Global South out of the goodness of their own hearts.

Nima: Yeah, exactly and then getting praised for it.

Heidi Chow: Exactly. Yeah.

Adam: Yeah. That’s this game of global charity in general, the rich extract money from the poor, then give them back five percent and say, ‘Pat me on the back.’

Heidi Chow: Yeah and I think that’s a really key thing to remember for this current pandemic is that, you know, I’ve heard recently about a similar, I think, WHO has been encouraging rich countries to again donate their excess doses to the Global South. But, again, you know, what we need is justice and not charity. We need a system that works for all and actually, I saw in the news today that the African Union have actually acquired 300 million vaccine doses for themselves and as a quote from the spokesperson from the CDC in the African Union, and he said, ‘We come to the table not to beg, we want to buy doses, but we’d be struggling to buy the doses,’ and I thought that’s a really kind of, yeah, I thought was a really good quote from, you know, hearing from someone from the African Union and actually saying, ‘We don’t want charity, we actually want to buy the doses but you guys have bought it all up.’

Adam: Yeah, that’s, I mean, that’s been the scam since, you know, Rockefeller would pay his workers five cents an hour, then turn around and create a foundation and then pat himself on the back for being a good guy because he gave their starving children a cent. To me the big, from a messaging perspective or a PR perspective, the big bullshit factor in all this is that ever since the George Floyd, we talked about this at the beginning here, but ever since the George Floyd protests in May and June of last year, everybody and their mother was talking about white supremacy. Wells Fargo was talking about white supremacy, Nike was talking about white supremacy, it sort of became trendy to kind of talk about this in an abstract term and, you know, most of that’s good, you know, those kinds of public conversations, even if corporations cynically exploit them, or it’s whatever, it’s better than the other thing and then you see this emerging vaccine apartheid happen at the same time and then you see The New York Times say the poor countries won’t get it till 2024 and the fine print well 27 of the 28 poorest countries are in Sub Saharan Africa. So basically, what we’re talking about is a racial apartheid regime, you know, we can speak in code and talk about poor and rich and developed and underdeveloped and all that kind of stuff but, basically, per usual, the legacy of colonialism, black and brown people are going to get fucked over and white people are going to be golden. In fact, I’m going to have nine vaccines for myself, right?

Nima: Right.

Adam: And we act like this is the du jour or de facto, I think du jour, I think the WTO was largely set up under a racial regime from the beginning, as I believe the post World War Two economic order was, we can get into that later, but it’s shocking to me even a cynical, jaded media critic, it’s shocking to me how little we talk about this in racial terms, how some dipshit on Twitter says something, and it’s the outrage of the day and that’s good, you know, I have no problem with that, but here we have an economic system that is going to kill hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people, based on a racist system that is either again, either du jour or de facto, I think it’s both, and no one seems to frame it as a racial issue. When The New York Times reports on it, it’s ho-hum, hand-wringing, poor people are gonna die and it’s like, they’re dying because they’re black and as a system, we don’t give a shit about black people, whether they’re in Africa or the United States. Why is that? Why do you think this is not framed in more starkly racial terms? The term vaccine apartheid I think is completely the correct term, because it is an apartheid regime and from your work, is there something to be gained by more aggressively looking at this in a racial lens and putting this in the context of racial justice so we don’t act like, again, this is just some law of nature that we can kind of hand wring about it, but there’s nothing really we can do about it. What do you think the utility is of putting it in those terms?

Heidi Chow: Yeah, you know, the term vaccine apartheid actually was used by the South African delegation at the World Trade Organization in the meeting just before Christmas when they were discussing the proposal to suspend patents during the pandemic, he actually said that the current situation where we’re seeing bilateral deals being done, and rich countries ignoring global collaboration actually reinforces an vaccine apartheid and enlarges chasms of inequity. So actually, when a South African says that you really have to take notice and I think you’re right, there is an unspoken undercurrent of what we’re seeing is that lives across the Global South matter a lot less than the lives of those in the rich north, and the lives of those in the Global South, the Latinos, the Asians, the black people, they seem to matter a lot less, they mattered a lot less during the HIV crisis of the 1990s that we’ve talked about, they matter a lot less when we’re talking about dealing with cancer and like I’ve mentioned when we talk about hepatitis C, and for all the other access issues that we’re seeing, but we’re also seeing it for things like, you know, in global public health terms, there’s actually a term called neglected diseases and what that means is that these are conditions that affect people in the Global South, but don’t affect people in the rich north, and in which we have zero investment to actually come up with treatments to save their lives.

Nima: Yes. Exactly.

Heidi Chow: And so I think the fact that we even have that category called neglected diseases, I think is, when I first heard it, I was completely shocked, I couldn’t believe that we would value people’s lives so little, that we wouldn’t even bother to work out how we can treat certain conditions. So globally, we have about 4 percent of newly approved drugs, which are conditions that affect only poorer countries and so I think that the system that we have in place is driven by this market logic that reinforces that racial prejudice because the pharmaceutical industry, the global pharmaceutical industry, it’s not actually based on the human right to health, it is not based on every individual having the right to access medicines, which is a vital part of the idea around right to health, and instead, we have a pharmaceutical system that’s based on a financial logic, which says that whoever has the most power and has the most wealth, get to live. So there’s something really wrong in this system in itself, like you said, it’s a racist model, it’s an elitist model. It’s not a model that’s about human rights, it’s a model essentially, about extractive profits. And so there’s a real tension in that model and, you know, as something that our organization has been doing the last few years is really pushing for alternatives and saying, actually, we need to transform this system. How can we even live with this system? For too long, we have sacrificed public health for market logic and people are dying as a result of that and there’s just something so crazy and, I mean, for me, there’s a real moral and solidarity argument to say why we need to have equity in our global health system and equity in access to medicines, but certainly for something like COVID, what we see is, it’s more than just being moral and having solidarity with our fellow brothers and sisters across the world wherever they live. There’s also actually a real public health argument here, because actually, when it comes to things like COVID vaccines, if you leave large parts of the world without a vaccine, you just allowing the virus to continue to spread and to transmit and to ultimately to mutate. So all these vaccines that were hoarding in the rich countries, they’re going to be rendered potentially ineffective when we’re faced with different variants and mutations and so it really underscores the saying that’s been said quite a lot in WHO and even with political leaders who say, no one is safe until everyone is safe. That’s one of the things that I’m hoping that does come out of the COVID-19 crisis, you know, in that more than ever, we are all tied together and actually, this is not about creating and sustaining a world where we have those who have and those who haven’t, where we have those who can get vaccines and those who can’t, actually doesn’t really benefit anyone ultimately.

Nima: Right, you know, this idea that the system is just built on deliberate neglect, right? I mean, the fact that there can be neglected diseases, neglected by whom? And so you even see the kind of framework of who gets to decide whose lives matter, whose diseases matter, whose vaccines matter, and for whom. But Heidi, before we let you go, can you tell us a little bit more, you kind of started talking about some of the work that you’re doing at Global Justice Now, we’d love to hear more about that, some campaigns that you currently have going on and how our listeners can not only hear more about it, but possibly get involved of course.

Heidi Chow: Yeah, sure. So, we’re essentially a campaigning organization, and we run public campaigns to raise awareness around these issues, the things we’ve talked about today, you know, we’ve talked about trade rules, we’ve talked about intellectual property and there’s also things that, you know, not a sort of thing about the person in the street kind of talks about very often. So that’s part of our role to make some of these more complex issues really accessible, and to allow people to see how politics are intersecting with the power dynamics that we’re seeing in the world and how corporate control is actually taking precedence over the things that really matter in our lives. And so we’ve been raising public awareness around this issue around inequality of access of the COVID-19 vaccines, we’ve been raising awareness around the role of big pharmaceutical companies, and how they have been, you know, they’ve written the global rules in their own favor, but they’re also being put in the driving seat to come up with the response to COVID. And so yeah, so we put a lot of pressure, as a UK based organization, we put a lot of pressure on our own government, because our own government is doing lots of stuff to oppose. They’ve been opposing the proposal at the WTO to suspend patents at this time and what’s interesting about the UK government, which may be very different to the US government at this time, is the UK government’s actually been saying a lot of stuff about how important equitable access is and they’ve given a lot of money to COVAX, which is the international vaccine purchasing program, and so they’ve been doing a lot of lip service, but then behind the scenes they’ve been racing around to hoard vaccines and secure, you know, doing a UK first type policy. So we’ve been trying to expose kind of the role of the UK Government and the hypocrisy around this and really urging them to use their influence to actually push for proper measures that can lead to more equitable outcomes for the whole world. And we collaborate a lot with other civil society organizations across the world and we are part of the People’s Vaccine Alliance, which is a global alliance of different organizations who are all calling for the same thing.

Nima: Well, that is wonderful, and I think a perfect place to leave it. We’ve been speaking with Heidi Chow, Senior Campaigns and Policy Manager and Global Justice Now, a UK-based organization that mobilizes people for change and acts in solidarity with those fighting injustice, particularly in the Global South. You can follow her on Twitter @hidschow. Heidi, thank you so much again for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Heidi Chow: Thank you so much, Nima.


Adam: Yeah, so, you know, you had a headline from June of last year in an industry publication saying, “Biopharma CEOs call for action on systemic racism — across America and in their own ranks.” Pfizer CEO, Albert Bourla, posted a letter he wrote to US-based Pfizer colleagues on LinkedIn with a note that he was sharing it on the platform, quote, “as a call to action for all Pfizer partners, suppliers and other stakeholders to stand with us and speak up against racial discrimination and injustice.” The letter said, in part: “As our equity value says ‘Every person deserves to be seen, heard and cared for.’ That’s a fundamental truth that defines who we are as a company — and who we are as human beings. At this moment in time, we have an opportunity to lead candid and honest conversations on race that will allow for greater understanding and real change.” Unquote. So this is someone whose corporation has spent several million dollars lobbying to prevent the Global South from getting a life saving vaccine whose company since the ‘80s —

Nima: But they really care about racial discrimination.

Adam: They use their systemic racism, right? That’s how you show you’re really serious. You don’t just say I oppose racism, you oppose systemic racism, systemic, oh, well, then by all means you’re fucking, you’re the wokest guy in the world. And so again, this is a situation where we’ve been talking about white supremacy, Joe Biden used it in his inauguration speech, we use terms like systemic racism, and meanwhile, organizations like the WTO, which is the definition of systemic racism, which will cause the deaths of millions of people in Africa, Subsaharan Africa and Latin America, because they’re too poor, by Design, by design, they’re too poor to afford these medications —

Nima: By deliberate divestment.

Adam: Right, and this is why it sort of rings hollow, none of this anti-racist discourse, for the most part doesn’t really leave our shores, we don’t think about these things as racial justice issues, and you have these, obviously, this is Pfizer, you know, maybe it’s a little bit of low hanging fruit here, but this kind of self-flagellation like, ‘Oh, we’re gonna stop being racist.’ The number one thing you could do is pick up the phone and say you’re going to lobby against intellectual property rights, but of course, they’re not going to do that. So it’s all bullshit.

Nima: Right, because they’re the ones who helped create it on purpose and so in a way, I actually don’t think it’s low hanging fruit in this case. Yes, Big Pharma is obviously going to be shitty but what we’ve been seeing since the vaccine rollout is pharmaceutical companies being now seen as these heroes, right? The speed at which vaccines were developed, and in part distributed, and then now it’s on the states who are fucking everything up and so evil states, evil government, but good pharma, right? So like, that’s the narrative that we’re seeing. Pfizer, Moderna, Gilead, Regeneron, like these are now our heroes. I’ve seen signs in people’s lawns that are hailing Pfizer like, ‘Thank god for Pfizer,’ and, yes, vaccine rollout is hugely important to human survival, to getting back to some semblance of human interaction on a remotely kind of normal scale, coming out of a depression, getting people back to work safely and securely, making sure human bodies are not themselves weaponized against others, right? Like vaccines are really important. We need this, we need more of it and we need more people, more countries, more companies globally to be pursuing this and so it gets back to this open source idea, it gets back to this sharing idea and when you have then the Pfizer CEO talking about Pfizer’s values, their value statement about ‘Everyone needs to be heard, everyone’s lives need to be valued, everyone should be safe and secure.’ Well, obviously, their decisions, their business decisions, do not bear that out and as we’ve been discussing, that is by design.

Adam: Right. These things are not accidents, and the media treats them repeatedly as accidents, just as they treat for the longest time, and to a great extent today, they treat police shootings as kind of ’Well, it’s just the way it is because there’s crime and the police have to be,’ it’s just ‘Oh, the poor countries aren’t going to get the vaccine until 2024. 27 of the 28 poorest countries in the world are in Subsaharan Africa, they’re all Black majority and they’re not going to get the vaccine till 2024 by the time we’ve all moved on, and we’re at fucking rock concerts and baseball games. That’s just the way it is. That’s the way it is. We don’t need to interrogate why it is.’

Nima: Right.

Adam: ‘It’s just there’s no forces at work, there’s no restrictive intellectual property regime set up by a bunch of crusty white men in the ‘60s and ‘70s and ‘80s that is being actively defended by both political parties now, it’s just sort of, you know, it’s like the tides, it’s like gravity, it’s just the way it is, nothing you do about it and it doesn’t require interrogating,’ by the way here’s 75,000 stories about evil Chinese and Iranians stealing our intellectual property.

Nima: Yeah, it’s almost too cliche and yet, that is where we find ourselves. So, really be on the lookout for those evil foreign scare stories when it comes to enhancing cybersecurity to defend our beloved and sacrosanct intellectual property rights for our big pharmaceutical companies and remember what it’s really doing, and it’s ensuring that the Global South stays divested, stays in debt to Europe and the U.S., and that is on purpose. So, I think we’re going to be seeing that, obviously as vaccines continue to be rolled out and more potentially developed, but we’re going to see these and all they do is they serve corporate America and they serve, obviously, to enhance the national security state because these are always framed as NATSEC issues. But that will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Thank you everyone for listening. 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. And as always, a very special shout out goes to our critic level supporters through Patreon. 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. Special thanks to Sarah Lazare for helping us write this episode. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again for listening everyone. We’ll catch you next time.


This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, January 27, 2021.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.



Citations Needed

A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.