Project Censored’s top 10 stories show old patterns alive and well

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click to enlarge ANSON STEVENS-BOLLEN
Anson Stevens-Bollen

8. Pfizer Bullies South American Governments over COVID-19 Vaccine

“Pfizer has essentially held Latin American governments to ransom for access to its lifesaving COVID-19 vaccine,” Project Censored reports, the latest example of how it’s exerted undue influence to enrich itself at the expense of low- and middle-income nations going back to the 1980s, when it helped shape the intellectual property rules it’s now taking advantage of.

“Pfizer has been accused of ‘bullying’ Latin American governments in Covid vaccine negotiations and has asked some countries to put up sovereign assets, such as embassy buildings and military bases, as a guarantee against the cost of any future legal cases,” according to reporters at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

In one case it resulted in a three-month delay in reaching a deal. “For Argentina and Brazil, no national deals were agreed at all,” BIJ reported. “Any hold-up in countries receiving vaccines means more people contracting Covid-19 and potentially dying.”

It’s normal for governments to provide some indemnity. But, “Pfizer asked for additional indemnity from civil cases, meaning that the company would not be held liable for rare adverse effects or for its own acts of negligence, fraud or malice,” BIJ reported. “This includes those linked to company practices – say if Pfizer sent the wrong vaccine or made errors during manufacturing.”

“Some liability protection is warranted, but certainly not for fraud, gross negligence, mismanagement, failure to follow good manufacturing practices,” the World Health Organization’s director of the Collaborating Center on National and Global Health Law, Lawrence Gostin, told BIJ. “Companies have no right to ask for indemnity for these things.”

During negotiations, which began in June 2020, “the Argentinian government believed that, at the least, Pfizer ought to be accountable for acts of negligence on its part in the delivery and distribution of the vaccine, but, instead of offering any compromise, Pfizer ‘demanded more and more,’ according to one government negotiator,” Project Censored summarized. “That was when Pfizer called for Argentina to put up sovereign assets as collateral. Argentina broke off negotiations with Pfizer, leaving the nation’s leaders at that time without a vaccine supply for its people,” in December. “It was an extreme demand that I had only heard when the foreign debt had to be negotiated, but both in that case and in this one, we rejected it immediately,” an Argentine official told BIJ.

That same month, “just after the United States approved Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use, In These Times’ Sarah Lazare filed a detailed report on the history of the pharmaceutical giant’s opposition to expanding vaccine access to poor countries, beginning in the mid-1980s during the negotiations that eventually resulted in the establishment of the WTO in 1995.

“Both globally and domestically, Pfizer played an important role in promoting the idea that international trade should be contingent on strong intellectual property rules, while casting countries that do not follow U.S. intellectual property rules as engaging in ‘piracy,’” a view they promoted to multiple business networks, shielded from wider public debate. “It was not a given, at the time, that intellectual property would be included in trade negotiations,” she explained. “Many Third World countries resisted such inclusion, on the grounds that stronger intellectual property rules would protect the monopoly power of corporations and undermine domestic price controls.”

"It is difficult to think of a clearer case for suspending intellectual property laws than a global pandemic," and "a swath of global activists, mainstream human rights groups and UN human rights experts have added their voices to the demand for a suspension of patent laws," Lazare noted. But Pfizer was joined in its opposition by pharmaceutical trade groups and individual companies, such as Moderna, another COVID-19 vaccine maker.

As a result, “One could make a map of global poverty, lay it over a map of vaccine access, and it would be a virtual one-to-one match,” she wrote. “Once again majority black and brown countries, by and large, are left to suffer and die.”

“Pfizer’s dealings in South America are not exactly secret,” Project Censored noted, but “As of May 2021, there has been no corporate media coverage of Pfizer’s actual dealings in South America or how the pharmaceutical giant helped establish the global intellectual property standards it now invokes to protect its control over access to the vaccine.”

Nor is this anything new, it concluded: “Big Pharma has a long, underreported track record of leaving developing nations’ medical needs unfulfilled, as Project Censored has previously documented.”

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