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Logistics and distribution key to fighting COVID-19 worldwide, says former commerce secretary.

In this article:
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Gary Locke, former U.S. Commerce Secretary, talks vaccine distribution, intellectual property, and why cold storage and personnel are critical to fighting COVID-19 around the world.

Video Transcript

ADAM SHAPIRO: As we consider COVID-19 vaccination protocols and the news today from the CDC regarding boosters, it's important to remember the rest of the world is trying to get their first shots. Let's bring into the stream the former US Secretary of Commerce, as well as a ambassador to China under President Barack Obama, Gary Locke, and Anjalee Khemlani, who covers COVID-19 and other health issues for us. It's good to have both of you here. And Mr. Secretary, just out of curiosity, is the United States and the other advanced countries, are we doing enough, or what more could we do to help the rest of the world get vaccines?

GARY LOCKE: Oh, we're definitely not doing enough. I mean, President Biden has pledged a donation of over a billion vaccine doses, but the world really needs-- the rest of the world really needs about 11 billion. So it's really incumbent upon all the advanced wealthy countries of the world to donate as many doses as possible to pay for the doses to distribute to the underdeveloped countries all around the world. And really, we need to ramp up production facilities. I mean, yes, all of our manufacturers are going 24/7. All of the American vaccine makers have issued free licenses to even generic companies and even to some of their typical normal competitors to produce the vaccine.

But we really need to expand the production facility, the existing facilities, and really focus on the human infrastructure, the delivery mechanisms of getting these shots into the arms of people. Places in Africa have actually turned away vaccines because they don't have the refrigeration capability, the logistical transportation capability, or even personnel to administer the shot into people's arms.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Ambassador, I'm so glad you brought that up because I want to talk about that first and get into intellectual property later. But initially, we heard a lot of different reasons for pushback from the pharmaceutical companies, including lack of resources, supply chain concerns, and some of these concerns as well, where even upon delivery, some of the countries were unable to then distribute the vaccine. So, who really bears the burden of sorting this all out, and are some of those concerns still valid?

GARY LOCKE: Well, I think some of these supply chain issues are very valid because you have manufacturing facilities going 24/7. I think they ought to expand some of their facilities, make them larger, added some more production lines, and I think we really need to even bring in relief workers, even perhaps a FEMA type and military officials, personnel, to help deliver the vaccines, you know, out in the remote rural parts of undeveloped countries.

You know, some of these vaccines need very cold, cold refrigeration. And many of the countries receiving these vaccines don't have that capability, the storage capability. So I really think that we should be treating this as any other natural disaster. It's a human disaster. And we should be offering our personnel, whether it's relief workers or military personnel, and not just American, but from all around the world, including UN forces, to help administer and deliver the shots.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: You recently penned an op-ed discussing a lot of these ideas, as well as the idea of the intellectual property-- intellectual debate, really just looking at the trips waiver in particular, and about the idea that it may not be as helpful. And I know that that's something that experts who I've talked to have said that the US backing of the trips waiver, for example, is really more symbolic than anything else, considering the fact that Pfizer, for example, has already partnered with a company in South Africa. And Moderna has announced that they're going to create an African hub. Is that maybe off the mark a little? Do they actually have the potential to build out these in time, with Pfizer saying that theirs could be operational by early next year?

GARY LOCKE: Well, that's the problem. Waiving the intellectual property protections and allowing new companies to try to stand up production facilities, I mean, that could take four to five years. We don't have four to five years. We need immediate production and distribution of these vaccines, including people that will administer the shots and storage capability in the remote undeveloped countries of the world. I mean, it's not like allowing some company to get the secret sauce to get the formulas and will not enable them to ramp up a production facility overnight. It's not like you're building a factory to make shoes or shirts or toys.

I mean, look at the problems that the sophisticated laboratory manufacture had in Maryland, Emergent, where the federal government required them to throw out some 60 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. This requires very sophisticated equipment, very sophisticated manufacturing processes, highly skilled workers. And it requires very exacting procedures and qualifications and standards.

So to think that some country in the world, undeveloped country, could somehow build a factory and get all the sophisticated equipment in place, train the people, when some of our own companies are having problems, I think is a false promise. And again, it might take three to four years for these companies and countries to build these facilities. We don't have that luxury of time.

What's happening right now is that whether it's the Pfizer or Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, they're partnering with even some of their typical competitors. They're giving out free licenses to the generic companies in India and elsewhere to manufacture it. But they're doing it with trusted [INAUDIBLE], where they know that the confidentiality of the R&D will be protected, but they're approaching it in an all hands on deck fashion.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Do you think that the argument is more about protection of the intellectual property versus the argument of the bottom line as well? There's a perception that they're trying to protect the revenues as well?

GARY LOCKE: Well, I'll leave it to the members of Congress to debate drug pricing. And certainly we've had some horror stories about unscrupulous companies charging-- dramatically increasing the price of even generic drugs and things like that. But we need to make sure that our pharmaceutical industry has a financial incentive to continue to invest billions of dollars every year in R&D, knowing that so many times, the trials that they embark upon fail, don't come to fruition, and, you know, the drugs don't work.

You know, I have many family members suffering from some dreaded diseases. I would really like to have a cure for these diseases. But therefore I want to make sure that our pharmaceutical companies all around the world have the incentive to keep engaging in R&D, research and development, to hopefully come up with a cure. And if they know that their intellectual property is given away or free permanently, what incentive do they have then to continue in research and development?

Are they really just giving their secret sauce, their ingredients, their R&D, all their research papers and files to a potential competitor, who then has a head start? And I really believe that the companies and the [INAUDIBLE] seeking the waiver of intellectual property, they're not really interested in trying to develop the vaccine for COVID. They want the technology so that they can get a headstart on cures and medicines for other diseases.

ADAM SHAPIRO: All right, we appreciate your insight and joining us here ambassador, as well as Anjalee. It's good to have you here. Just a reminder to everybody, Gary Locke is a former ambassador to China, as well as a former Secretary of Commerce here in the United States.