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Biden's Covid vaccine plan is helpful. But here's what's really needed to speed things up.

The U.S. has made a political and economic choice to favor pharmaceutical companies over the survival of thousands of people.
Employees work on the production line of CoronaVac, Sinovac Biotech's vaccine against Covid-19, in Sao Paulo on Thursday.Nelson Almeida / AFP - Getty Images

Good news: The major delay we face in receiving our Covid-19 vaccines is the result of human choice. Although that may not immediately sound uplifting, it’s a crucial revelation. It means that something can be done if we pool our power to demand our vaccines now.

We think there’s nothing to be done but to wait to get our shots. But that’s wrong and damaging; it’s a convenient untruth that lets our politicians off the hook.

After vaccines were developed and tested in record time — thanks to government groundwork, emergency funding, purchase guarantees and expedited review by the Food and Drug Administration — the distribution effort has so far been defined by miscommunication, shambolic coordination and botched purchasing. Only one-third of available doses have been injected thus far; state and local distribution is in disarray; the government has currently only secured enough doses to vaccinate less than half the U.S. population by the end of June; and much of the general public is being told to wait patiently until midsummer or later to receive their first shot.

Given the chorus of low expectations from the government and the media, and grandiose self-congratulations coming from pharmaceutical companies and some political leaders, it’s no wonder that we think there’s nothing to be done but to wait to get our shots. But that’s wrong and damaging; it’s a convenient untruth that lets our politicians off the hook even as every extra day of delay means thousands more people die.

There is no insurmountable technical obstacle, no unmovable production calendar, no force of nature keeping these vaccines from fast, widespread availability. Instead, there's a political and economic choice to favor pharmaceutical company profits and the independence of industry over the survival of thousands of people.

Beyond the logistical problems caused by government incompetence, the major forthcoming delay is from the manufacture of the vaccines themselves. And it’s avoidable — if our politicians are willing to challenge the pharma companies from which they’ve received donations for years and take bold action to expand production. There are, in fact, many possible ways the government could persuade, incentivize or simply force pharmaceutical companies to release their grip on the supply of this life-saving technology.

After receiving billions of taxpayer dollars to develop the vaccines, then billions more to sell them back to the same governments, pharmaceutical companies are now trying to keep tight control over their products. (Even the offer by drug company Moderna to not enforce its patent during the pandemic isn’t quite the same as helping others use it.)

Despite building on decades of government and government-funded research, these companies have indicated they essentially consider the vaccines their sole property to produce and sell at whatever price they like. Now that they hold the exclusive knowledge for how to make and manufacture the vaccines — but are apparently not subject to any obligations in their government contracts that would require transparency or collaboration — they are not interested in sharing the intellectual property and information that would allow other companies to produce them.

Many pharmaceutical companies are attempting to maximize their short-term profits off the vaccines. For a company like Pfizer, that means parcelling out the total amount their supply chain can produce to the high-income countries willing to pay a premium for access to it. Companies claim control over their products is essential to incentivize vaccine development and to make up for costs — but both are moot points when the product was largely developed and paid for by the public.

Our government has the power to instead expedite production by putting people ahead of these businesses’ profits. In addition to boosting individual companies’ production through the Defense Production Act, which grants the president authority to order private industry to prioritize production for government requests, it can also force pharmaceutical companies to grant patent licenses to other companies so they can start producing more doses.

The government can also take a license of a patent and start production itself if the product was developed with federal funds — as were the investments made in the Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca, Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline vaccines. It can encourage or force companies to partner with one another beyond patent-sharing — to share manufacturing capacity and know-how— that would amp up necessary production.

Internationally, the U.S. could also support the effort initiated by India and South Africa to create a waiver on intellectual property rights in World Trade Organization member countries to spur widespread production of generic versions that would benefit everyone. Advocates note that currently, 9 out of 10 people in poor countries won’t have access to a Covid-19 vaccine because of limited supply, not to mention lack of access to the refrigeration needed for its use.

The Biden administration, thankfully, has indicated some willingness to speed up production. Particularly significant is that the president-elect recently said he’ll use the Defense Production Act to “order private industry to accelerate the making of the materials needed for the vaccines.” Biden’s most detailed plans, however, remain focused on financing and building a new and important vaccination distribution infrastructure.

This welcome improvement won’t be enough to address the overall shortage of the vaccine itself. The Biden team has acknowledged that "the current plan has the manufacturers Moderna and Pfizer ramping up across time, but it’s not going to be enough to vaccinate a majority of the U.S. population for months." We can only increase distribution speed up to the point that we have doses to distribute — and despite pledging to “maximize the manufacture of vaccine and vaccine supplies for the country,” the administration hasn’t yet committed to the major intervention necessary to actually do that.

The voices of ordinary people are essential to making any of that happen. We should force our leaders, Biden in particular, to answer why they want to protect pharmaceutical profits and the supposed sanctity of free enterprise while thousands die every day. We should ask our representatives why they are content, after receiving their own vaccinations, to sit back and wait for their constituents to get the same.

There are already voices pushing the action we need on the vaccines we helped produce — from Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, in Congress to some voices in media and academia and activists across the globe — but their calls have yet to break through. Don’t wait to join them. Demand your vaccine.