Politics of Poverty

Corporate America: Protecting its own even if it’s bad for business

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We need a People's Vaccine: a patent-free, mass-produced vaccine that is distributed fairly and made available free of charge, to every individual, rich and poor alike, in every country. Sandra Stowe / Oxfam America

The only way to end the pandemic is to vaccinate the world. So what’s stopping us?

The global pandemic has profoundly altered our global economy—and it’s not close to an end. It continues to plague communities around the world, deplete healthcare systems, cause labor shortages in the US, erase millions of jobs worldwide, prompt inflation and disrupt supply chains. All this, aside from the devastating loss of life and long-term physical and emotional suffering.

There is hope for many of us, of course, and that’s in the form of effective, safe vaccines. When vaccinations are widespread, infections and fatalities fall, and the economy is able to reopen, as it has started to do in the US.

The reality is that the only way to end the pandemic and prevent more mutations of the virus from spreading is to vaccinate the world. But this is not happening. Even in late 2021, vaccinations are primarily being distributed in high and middle-income countries; the majority of the world’s poor and those living in low-income countries have no access to vaccines. So, what’s stopping us?

Pharmaceutical industry: Take the money, hoard the recipe

While pharmaceutical companies may be proud of the rapid development of effective vaccines, the reality is that they had the benefit of billions of dollars in public investment. But now, the reality is also that these same companies are refusing to share the technology with other manufacturers to increase production.

Over 100 nations support a proposal at the World Trade Organization to waive the patent rights held by the pharmaceutical companies; all the companies have vehemently opposed the waiver. And while President Biden has indicated support for the waiver, it faces an uphill battle as corporate America stands firmly behind the pharmaceutical industry in its steadfast support of what it calls “innovation.”

In pushing for the waiver, Oxfam, along with others in the People’s Vaccine Alliance, encouraged leaders from around the globe to sign on to a call to action. This call to action was signed by over 200 global leaders, including Chelsea Clinton, actors Alyssa Milano, Aisha Tyler, Maz Jobrani, and Forest Whitaker, professors Joseph Stiglitz and Noam Chomsky, activist Ady Barkan, and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich.

Corporate America: An old boy network that protects its own

However, not a single leader representing a for-profit entity signed on to the call to action. Why? Why are groups like the US Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable opposing the waiver? After all, corporate America and investors have the most to gain financially from ending the pandemic. Frontline workers and consumers will no longer fear public interaction, supply chain disruptions will slow, labor shortages will ease, and the threat from new variants in the future will be more limited and thus increase predictability and stability of the economy as a whole. And yet, they prioritize the intellectual property of three companies over the economy’s recovery (let alone the health of people in the US and abroad).

Has Corporate America merely become a fraternity, an old boy network covering for one another even at the expense of their own long-term value? After all, the waiver is a one-time exception; it doesn’t destroy the intellectual property rights of products in any way, now or in the future. The waiver would be responding to a historic moment—a global pandemic—which has never occurred in our lifetime. Are there no circumstances in which corporate America believes that such rights should be waived?

For large institutional investors that hold diversified investments with long-term horizons, the waiver should be paramount. Their investments depend on the health of the market and thus the health of the economy as a whole. And yet, many large asset managers joined their brethren in protecting Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson.

Oxfam recently filed shareholder resolutions with Pfizer and Moderna, calling on the companies to examine the feasibility of transferring their technology to enable other manufacturers to produce the vaccines that the world needs to save lives and restart the global economy. Investors have an opportunity to support this proposal, protecting the health of their portfolios and people worldwide.

Sadly, companies in other sectors haven’t stepped up either. Even though it’s clear beyond a doubt that this is the moment for corporate America to tell the vaccine manufacturers that they can’t continue to prioritize short-term pandemic profits over public health and broad-based economic prosperity. Protecting the economy and saving lives means breaking from the old boy network of corporate America.


Take action: Sign the petition to demand a People's Vaccine.

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