As the Biden administration continues to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo holds one of the most critical but under-appreciated roles for ensuring vaccine distribution. Indeed, the Commerce Secretary is a key player determining more generally whether America and the planet prioritize Big Pharma’s wealth or public health.
But after a month in the position, Raimondo has done little to advocate for widespread vaccine distribution beyond our nation’s borders. Instead, she has used her position to do exactly as we feared: defend big corporations above all else.
Before becoming Commerce Secretary, Raimondo was a venture capitalist with a long record of Wall Street allegiance. Raimondo received double the amount of donations from Wall Street firms than from residents of Rhode Island’s second and third biggest cities. In addition to her massive financial industry backers, Raimondo also received campaign donations from Jonathan Sackler and his wife for a decade. Sackler was personally involved in Purdue’s aggravation of the opioid crisis. After repeated refusals to return the donations, Raimondo finally capitulated and donated the money to an organization helping families with addiction.
Raimondo first won statewide election to become the General Treasurer of Rhode Island with the support of out-of-state hedge fund managers and later won a three-way race for Governor. In Rhode Island, Raimondo:
- Slashed public pension benefits;
- Redirected pension funds to her own venture capital firm and to anti-labor hedge funds;
- Proposed major cuts to Medicaid;
- Prematurely rolled out a disastrous Deloitte-designed website that created a 20,000-case backlog despite numerous warnings from the federal government; and
- Massively deregulated corporations.
And during the pandemic, she:
- Gave blanket immunity to nursing homes;
- Halved aid to low-income communities;
- Derided teachers unions for opposing in-person teaching in the middle of a second wave of cases; and
- Continually misrepresented the state of the pandemic even as cases continued to rise.
As Commerce Secretary, Raimondo serves as President Biden’s top official on intellectual property rules, which have taken on an even greater significance during a global pandemic. In what has been dubbed “vaccine apartheid,” 9 out of 10 people from poorer countries will be unable to get vaccinated this year, while poorer nations are also having to pay much higher rates to purchase vaccine doses. Meanwhile, wealthier nations have imposed restrictions on poorer nations while refusing to assist with vaccine procurement. And we continue to be concerned by the possibility that Biden may have used the US’s vaccine wealth to pressure Mexican President Obrador to adopt harsher anti-immigration policies.
The COVID vaccine is a human right, and the Biden administration must do everything in its power to ensure that everyone, both domestically and abroad, can receive the vaccine.
There are billions of people globally yet to be vaccinated, and, combined with vaccine hoarding, current vaccine supply is far too low to accommodate all people over the age of 16 eligible for vaccination. Vaccine supply shortages are a compounding public health crisis on top of the already horrific pandemic, but intellectual property (IP) protections on the vaccines are strangling any chance of increased production. Instead of making their vaccine formulations publically available and saving thousands of lives in the process, the pharmaceutical industry is pressuring the Biden administration to enforce its monopoly.
One of the abilities the Biden administration has to ensure widespread vaccination is the temporary limiting of intellectual property protections for the COVID vaccines. An alliance of over one hundred nations are pushing for a World Trade Organization Trade and Intellectual Property Rules (TRIPS) waiver for COVID vaccines, but wealthier nations that already have the greatest access to the vaccines are currently opposing the effort.
So far, the Biden administration has refused to make its position public, but Raimondo’s previous statements on the issue do not inspire confidence. In response to questions for the record concerning intellectual property rights and COVID vaccines during her confirmation, Raimondo stated that she would enforce strong IP protections for businesses domestically and in trade agreements, with no exceptions for essential health products like the COVID vaccines.
Raimondo’s statements indicate she is unlikely to support the waiver, and that position may have ramifications throughout the rest of Commerce. As Secretary, Raimondo has a crucial role in advising Biden on who to nominate to lead two critical offices on IP policy. That includes the Director of the Commerce Department’s Patent and Trademark Office, which has immense power to ensure equity in patent-granting, protect the interests of non-commercial groups, and restrain patent monopolies, including on Big Pharma. It also includes the next Director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which holds patents on behalf of the federal government to ensure their availability for public domain use. The next nominees must be strong proponents of patent reform and waiving private patent rights when they interfere with humanitarian goals.
Secretary Raimondo and the rest of the Biden administration must act quickly to support the TRIPS waiver. Even with increasing vaccinations, about 9,000 people globally are dying from the virus each day while over 500,000 contract it. Vaccine nationalism is a threat to public health and an affront to human decency, and the Biden administration must reject it outright. Raimondo needs to press for the TRIPS waiver for COVID vaccines and prioritize saving millions of lives over protecting Big Pharma’s profits.
Header image source: C-SPAN