In a surprising and heartening turn of events, President Biden recently announced he would support a TRIPS waiver at the WTO, which would temporarily waive COVID vaccine intellectual property protections and empower countries around the world to scale-up vaccine production. In the race to beat COVID-19 variants, this decision will no doubt save countless lives. Another key decision regarding COVID-19 treatments will be Biden’s choice to lead the U.S. Patent and Trade Office (PTO).
If Biden is truly committed to making the vaccine and other life-saving medicines available to everyone, not just those in wealthy countries, he must nominate a PTO director willing to part ways with the harmful status quo. The current system allows drug companies to exploit intellectual property law and charge outrageous prices for life saving medicine. The result has been vast economic and racial health disparities, as Black and Brown communities struggle the most to afford ridiculously high-priced medication.
When choosing the next PTO director, the Biden administration should rule out those who have a history of prioritizing profits and corporate interests over public health and safety. One such individual is Kevin Rhodes, an ally of Big Pharma who has vigorously defended efforts to keep drug prices high. His current employer, 3M, has abused its monopoly on the military earplug market to sell overpriced and faulty products to veterans. This should be immediately disqualifying for any future PTO director. Here are a few of the most alarming aspects of Kevin Rhodes’s career:
From 2016 to 2017, Rhodes was the president of the Intellectual Property Owners Association (IPO), a trade organization funded by patent troll company Intellectual Ventures and by Big Pharma giants Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer.
- IPO members organizations included Big Pharma, Big Law, Big Oil and Big Tech companies such as Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, Koch Industries, Exxon Mobil, Jones Day, Apple, Google, and Microsoft.
- In 2020, IPO spent $210,000 in lobbying.
Rhodes’ current employer, 3M, engaged in anti-competitive, anti-union, and environmentally destructive behavior, prioritizing profits over product safety, workers’ wellbeing, and the environment.
- 3M is a multinational conglomerate that manufactures a diverse array of products ranging from military-grade earplugs to transparent tape. 3M used a patent infringement lawsuit to protect its monopoly over the military earplug market and bar competitors from entering the market. In 2003, 3M was caught unduly entrenching its monopoly on transparent tape at the detriment of a serious competitor.
- 3M uses its monopoly on the military earplug market to sell faulty earplugs at an inflated price. The use of 3M’s faulty earplugs resulted in hearing loss for over 160,000 veterans.
- During the COVID-19 pandemic, 3M cut a portion of its union employee’s paychecks and refused to provide them with free personal protective equipment (yet provided free personal protective equipment to non-union employees).
- In 2018, 3M settled with Minnesota’s attorney general over claims that they had contaminated drinking water with perfluorochemicals (PFCs).
From 1991 to 2001, Rhodes was an intellectual property associate and partner at Kirkland & Ellis, a corporate law firm whose clients exploit intellectual property laws.
- Kirkland & Ellis’ IP clients include some of the world’s largest pharmaceutical firms such as GlaxoSmithKline and AbbVie. The firm has also litigated and advised on IP for many types of medical products, including vaccines.
- Kirkland & Ellis tended to hire lawyers who previously worked in antitrust enforcement agenciesto defend their clients’ anti-competitive conduct. For instance, Kirkland’s antitrust practice is led by Matthew Reilly, a former assistant director in the Mergers IV division of the FTC’s Bureau of Competition.
Photo: “Syringe and Vaccine” by NIAID is licensed under CC BY 2.0