As COVID-19 cases continue to rise in India and other countries, advocates and lawmakers have called on President Joe Biden’s administration to do more to help boost vaccinations globally. Along with requests for sharing the U.S. vaccine supply, advocates have put pressure on the Biden administration to waive pharmaceutical companies’ patents, which would boost global manufacturing of the vaccine. Despite the dire crisis unfolding in India and elsewhere, CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News have largely neglected to cover the Biden administration’s failure so far to waive the patents.
India is currently experiencing a deadly surge of COVID-19 cases as the second wave has led to millions of people infected with the virus in only a few short months. The end of April saw over 48,000 monthly deaths; the country recorded 400,000 thousand new cases in one day, and experts say actual case numbers could be “five to 10 times higher than those reported.” Hospitals have run out of beds and oxygen tanks, and journalists have reported on “round-the-clock mass cremations” taking place in the country.
As the situation in India grows dire, many have called for the Biden administration to sign onto India’s proposal to waive the vaccine patent protected under the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) rules, which would temporarily get rid of the intellectual property barriers preventing some countries from manufacturing their own vaccines and treatments. So far, a small number of wealthy countries have refused to sign onto India’s proposal, and the waiver will be debated this week at the World Trade Organization General Council meeting where Biden will be in attendance.
Cable news coverage of the waiver issue has been noticeably lacking, with the sum total of coverage over a one-week period clocking in at just 19 minutes.
From April 27 through May 3, MSNBC and CNN devoted only a handful of segments to discussing waivers -- seven segments on each network -- many of which were less than a minute and a half long. While the majority of segments affirmed that the Biden administration should waive vaccine patents, the meager quantity of reporting on such a major issue affecting millions of people around the world is negligent. Fox News had zero segments on the topic during this period as the network didn't even attempt to report on India’s fight to pass the TRIPS waiver.
Pharmaceutical companies oppose the waiver for multiple reasons, largely based on profit and the idea that the waiver would stifle innovation; Michelle McMurry-Heath, the president and CEO of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, an industry trade group, recently accused “self-interested” countries pushing the initiative of “exploiting the pandemic to acquire innovative technology invented in America and Europe.”
However, co-founder of Focus on the Global South Walden Bello has called out the position of the pharmaceutical companies as “misleading” and noted that a temporary patent suspension would “hardly affect [their] bottom line.” Jayati Ghosh, economics professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, recently spoke to the need to waive the intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines:
There is a shortage of vaccines globally. But this is an artificial shortage. This need not happen. There is enough production capacity for vaccines in the world today to vaccinate 60% of the population by the end of this year, the global population, if we waive the intellectual property rights and transfer the knowledge for making these vaccines to all the different producers in different parts of the world who are willing to make it. It’s only these intellectual property rights and this protection of knowledge, which was publicly subsidized, which was actually created by massive public subsidies and prior public research, this — if we waive these and allow the knowledge, we will actually be able to vaccinate significant part of the population and do something about arresting this pandemic. Every day that we do not do this is more lives lost.
As only 0.2% of the world’s vaccine supplies have gone to low-income countries, it is critical that cable news highlight the rampant inequality in vaccine access across the globe.
Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for all original programming on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC for any of the terms “COVID,” “COVID-19,” “coronavirus,” “virus,” or any variation of the term “vaccine” within close proximity of any of the terms “waiver,” “intellectual property,” “IP,” or “patent” from April 27 through May 3, 2021.
We included any segment about the COVID-19 vaccine intellectual property waivers, which we defined as instances when the waivers were the stated topic of discussion or when we found “significant discussion” of the waivers in a multi-topic segment. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers discussed the waivers with one another.
We then reviewed each segment for tone. We defined “positive” segments as instances that advocated for implementing the waivers. We defined “negative” segments as instances that were explicitly against the waivers. And we defined “neutral” segments as instances that took no stance and merely reported on the waivers.