Howard Dean Pushes Biden to Oppose Generic Covid-19 Vaccines for Developing Countries

The former progressive champion, who now works on behalf of corporate interests, joins the drug industry in arguing against sharing the intellectual property for low-cost vaccines.

Howard Dean participates in "The Contenders: 16 for 16" panel during the PBS Television Critics Association summer press tour in Beverly Hills, Calif. on July 29, 2016.
Howard Dean participates in a panel during the PBS Television Critics Association summer press tour in Beverly Hills, Calif., on July 29, 2016. Photo: Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP

Howard Dean, the former progressive champion, is calling on President Joe Biden to reject a special intellectual property waiver that would allow low-cost, generic coronavirus vaccines to be produced to meet the needs of low-income countries. Currently, a small number of companies hold the formulas for the Covid-19 vaccines, limiting distribution to many parts of the world.

“IP protections aren’t the cause of vaccination delays,” Dean claimed in a column for Barron’s last month. “Every drug manufacturing facility on the planet that’s capable of churning out Covid-19 shots is already doing so.”

“Creating a new medicine is a costly proposition,” wrote Dean. “Companies would never invest hundreds of millions in research and development if rivals could simply copy their drug formulas and create knockoffs.”

Dean’s claim that global vaccine manufacturing is already at capacity is patently false. Foreign firms have lined up to offer pharmaceutical plants to produce vaccines but have been forced to enter into lengthy negotiations under terms set by the intellectual property owners. The waiver, however, would allow generic drug producers to begin copying the vaccine without delay.

Many of the manufacturing plants prepared to mass produce low-cost vaccines are centered in India, which has committed to supplying the poorest countries in the world. But the waiver petition, Dean wrote, “is unreasonable and disingenuous; it’s a ruse to benefit India’s own industry at the expense of patients everywhere. President Biden would be wise to reject it.”

The strident opposition to the waiver, which is supported by an international coalition of human rights organizations as well as a growing cohort of congressional Democrats, may surprise Dean’s liberal supporters. But while Dean boasts a long history of support for single-payer health insurance coverage and government intervention into lowering domestic drug prices, he has reversed his positions on virtually every major progressive health policy issue since moving to work in the world of corporate influence peddling.

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Dean is not a registered lobbyist, though he works in the lobbying division of Dentons, a law and lobbying firm, and his rhetoric in the column follows the firm’s recent pattern of advocacy. Dentons touts its work on drug intellectual property issues, noting on its website that it has represented Pfizer and other firms in the recent past.

His official role is as a senior advisor to its government affairs practice focused on corporate health care clients, though as The Intercept has previously reported, he engages in almost every lobbying activity imaginable. In the past, Dean has argued that he is not a lobbyist but has declined to discuss what he does at the firm or the identities of his clients. Neither Dean nor Dentons responded to a request for comment from The Intercept.

The column references a proposal led by India and South Africa — joined by Kenya, Bolivia, Pakistan, and dozens of other countries — to request a temporary waiver of intellectual property rights over the creation of Covid-19 vaccines. The waiver to the World Trade Organization would allow unfettered access to the intellectual property and formulas necessary to retool factories and ramp up production of vaccines for the developing world, much of which is currently projected not to reach significant vaccination rates until as late as 2024.

Despite publicly funded research and huge infusions of government cash for the development and delivery of vaccines, drugmakers have carefully guarded their monopoly on the intellectual property rights and signaled to investors that they plan to soon hike prices. The pharmaceutical industry, including representatives of Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson, have pushed the Biden administration to oppose the intellectual property waiver petition and go further to even impose sanctions on any country that moves to manufacture vaccines without their express permission.

Dean, as The Intercept previously reported, moved through the revolving door after his time serving as Democratic National Committee chair to work for pharmaceutical and biotech companies, advising lobbyists during the Affordable Care Act debate on how to assist pharmaceutical firms with extended exclusivity protections on biologics, which are medicines made from living organisms, such as vaccines. He also serves on the board of the health care-focused investment fund Vatera.

“He sorts of pops up whenever you argue against anything that would lower drug prices.”

In another recent column, again reflecting the interests of drugmakers, Dean wrote in favor of a last-minute regulation proposed by the Trump administration to narrow the government’s ability to lower the prices of certain pharmaceutical products financed with public money, a rule that could stifle any future attempt to rein in the costs of coronavirus vaccines.

“Without taxpayer support for early-stage research at universities,” Dean acknowledges, “drug companies would have never been in a position to create lifesaving vaccines so quickly.” But, he writes, echoing industry arguments that any form of price controls would stifle innovation, “drug companies won’t spend the billions of dollars it takes to commercialize federally funded research if there’s a risk the government will seize the fruits of their research.”

“He sorts of pops up whenever you argue against anything that would lower drug prices,” said James Love, director of Knowledge Ecology International, a nonprofit that works to reform intellectual property rights to expand access to medicine.

“It’s appalling because he’s introduced as a progressive; he still gets on ‘Rachel Maddow,’” said Love. “But he’s on the payroll. He’s not a registered lobbyist — he somehow finds a way not to register — but he’s sort of an influencer, he’s paid to influence the debate.”

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