Warren to Tai at Hearing: Our Trade Negotiations Must Put Patients Over Big Pharma Profits
Tai commits to reviewing trade agreements, especially those that have a negative impact on individuals, workers, and communities
Video of Hearing Exchange (Youtube)
Washington, DC - At today's Senate Finance Committee, United States Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) questioned United States Trade Representative (USTR) Ambassador Katherine Tai to address specifics about last week's announcement of support for a COVID-19 TRIPS Waiver. USTR committed only to negotiating a waiver on some international intellectual property (IP) rules for COVID-19 vaccines, but testing, treatment, and PPE are also vital to combating COVID-19. When drug companies draft trade agreements, they include provisions protecting pharma monopolies and putting profits ahead of the lives of people around the world. Drug companies can use patent protections to block countries from making their own versions of these products, which could result in millions of more deaths if a meaningful agreement on the TRIPS waiver is not reached.
Senator Warren questioned Ambassador Tai on the administration's commitment to a TRIPS waiver for COVID-19-related diagnostics, therapeutics, and PPE, in addition to vaccines. She also asked Ambassador Tai if the U.S. should be doing everything it can to help other countries ramp up testing, treatment, and PPE production, and Ambassador Tai agreed.
Senator Warren also asked Ambassador Tai if she agrees that it's time to eliminate trade rules that drive up drug prices for consumers by strengthening monopoly protections for Big Pharma. In response, Tai committed to reviewing everything done on trade agreements -- including the negative impacts trade agreements have had on individuals, workers, and communities.
Transcript: The President's 2021 Trade Policy Agenda
U.S. Senate Finance Committee
Wednesday, May 12, 2021
Senator Warren: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. COVID-19 has already infected over 156 million people. It's killed more than 3 million people globally. It is great that companies have developed safe and effective vaccines, but we can't seem to make them quickly enough to stop the global spread that threatens all of us. The world needs more vaccine.
Part of the problem is that the drug companies own the recipes - even if taxpayers paid for the research. And the drug companies are using exclusive intellectual property rules that they lobbied for in order to keep others from making more of these lifesaving products.
Ambassador Tai, I was glad to see you announce last week that the United States supports waiving some of the international intellectual property rules to help end the pandemic. But I have some questions about how this waiver is going to work.
I am concerned that your announcement last week committed only to negotiating a waiver on IP rights for COVID-19 vaccines. As you know, testing, treatment, PPE are also vital to combating this virus. Drug companies can use patent protections to block countries from making their own versions of these products as well.
Ambassador Tai, does the administration also support a TRIPS waiver for COVID-19-related diagnostics, therapeutics, and PPE, in addition to a waiver on vaccines?
Ambassador Tai: Senator Warren, thank you for paying attention to that statement and for your words on framing what we are encountering right now as a reality to so many of us. Let me just say this. We are focused right now on the intellectual property waiver at the WTO with respect to vaccines. I know your question is broader, but for-- but for my efforts at the moment, it is a focus on access to vaccines and the inequity, in terms of the access to vaccines--
Senator Warren: I'm hearing you not rule out that we will also focus on waiver for these other products. Let me ask the question differently if that helps. Do you agree that the U.S. should be doing everything it can to help other countries ramp up their testing, treatment, and PPE production?
Ambassador Tai: Sure.
Senator Warren: Okay. Let's-- We'll go there for right now. You know, testing, treatment, PPE are critical. And that is why India and South Africa asked seven months ago for the world's help to make those items without running the risk that a drug company was going to sue them. So I believe that the U.S. should be backing these countries on this point too, and not trying to wiggle out of helping.
Time is also of the essence here. Millions of people are dying. Millions more will die if it takes another seven months to reach any kind of meaningful agreement.
Special protections for drug companies are an even bigger issue than COVID-19 alone. For years, the U.S. government has let giant corporations write the rules of our international trade system. So it's no surprise that when drug companies draft our trade agreements, they include provisions protecting pharma monopolies and putting profits ahead of lives of people all around the world. We're fighting over a waiver to rules - rules that never should have existed in the first place.
Ambassador Tai, as you negotiate new trade agreements - or as you revisit some outdated ones - do you agree that it is time to eliminate provisions that drive up drug prices for consumers by strengthening monopoly protections for Big Pharma?
Ambassador Tai: Senator Warren, thank you so much for the question. I am committed to reviewing everything about how we've done trade agreements and looking at them through the lens of what we've experienced. In particular, the negative impacts our trade agreements have had, especially on individuals, workers, and communities.
Senator Warren: Well, I am glad that Congress forced the previous administration to strike a part of the USMCA that never should have been drafted. But I think it's time now for our trade negotiators to take leadership and actively set rules that lower drug costs for American families instead of focusing on boosting profits for drug companies.
Drug companies are kicking and screaming about this waiver over the COVID vaccines because they are worried that the federal government may finally have the spine to lower drug prices - through global trade agreements and here at home. So the U.S. Trade (Representative)'s commitment on the waiver is a good first step - but I'm very much expecting you, Ambassador Tai, to follow through at the negotiating table.
I have also urged President Biden to take executive action to lower drug prices for tens of millions of American families by allowing the generic production of products like insulin and Epi-Pens. I'm glad that the drug companies are worried that their enormous profits may shrink. I'm going to keep pushing the administration to take more steps to put patients ahead of drug company profits.
Thank you for being here today, Ambassador Tai. And thank you, Mr. Chairman.
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