The Morning Dispatch: Is Vaccine Tech Too Precious to Patent?

Plus: Ongoing unrest in Burma, and a look at Liz Cheney's likely successor in House leadership.

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Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law on Thursday a package of election reforms passed by the state legislature last week with only Republican support. The bill, S.B. 90, will require Floridians to reapply for absentee ballots every year and limits ballot drop boxes to election supervisors’ offices or early-voting sites, among other provisions.

  • South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster on Thursday ordered the state’s Department of Employment and Workforce to cease participation in federal and pandemic-related unemployment benefit programs, effective June 30. McMaster said employers in the state face an “unprecedented labor shortage,” which he attributed in large part to the $300-per-week federal unemployment insurance boost.

  • Initial jobless claims decreased by 92,000 week-over-week to 498,000 last week, the Labor Department reported on Thursday, the lowest level since March 14, 2020.

  • The United States confirmed 46,644 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday per the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, with 3.0 percent of the 1,566,493 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 789 deaths were attributed to the virus on Thursday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 580,054. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 33,808 Americans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19. Meanwhile, 2,406,932 COVID-19 vaccine doses were administered yesterday, with 149,462,265 Americans having now received at least one dose.

A Worldwide Fight Over COVID IP

As COVID cases fester around the world, particularly hard-hit nations desperate for more vaccines have spent recent months lobbying the World Trade Organization (WTO) with a remarkable argument: COVID vaccines and treatments are too important to remain in the hands of a few private companies. The WTO, they say, should waive the manufacturers’ intellectual property rights in the hope of juicing production in the developing world.

The Trump White House had staunchly opposed the proposal, which India and South Africa first brought to the WTO in November. On Wednesday, however, the Biden administration—amid reports of out-of-control spread in India and under pressure from congressional Democrats—threw its weight behind the effort. “This is a global health crisis,” U.S. trade representative Katherine Tai said in a statement, “and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures.”

The waiver still isn’t a sure thing: Such actions need to be unanimous among WTO member countries, and the EU has continued to drag its heels. German chancellor Angela Merkel said Thursday she remains opposed to the waiver, which she said would not improve vaccine availability. “The protection of intellectual property is a source of innovation,” she said, “and it must remain so in the future.” BioNTech, which worked with Pfizer to develop its vaccine, is headquartered in Mainz, Germany. 

Congressional Republicans and the pharmaceutical industry sounded similar notes. GOP Rep. Byron Donalds, who is introducing legislation that would block Biden from authorizing the plan, called it “a direct infringement upon American ingenuity and innovation” that would “hand over our nation’s intellectual prowess for the world’s taking” in a Thursday appearance on Fox News. Steve Ubl, head of the industry trade group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, said the waiver would mean “handing over American innovations to countries looking to undermine our leadership in biomedical discovery.”  

It’s worth noting that the vaccines in question benefitted from a good deal of federal help—as is often the case with vaccine development, given the public-health benefits of eradicating disease and the relatively low profitability of vaccines in general. During the Trump administration, Operation Warp Speed disbursed more than $12 billion to accelerate vaccine manufacturing, funding vaccine research with eight different companies and distribution at others (including Pfizer, which funded its own research) by means of large advance contracts.

If it were certain, then, that waiving vaccine patents would in fact put rocket boosters on global vaccine production and availability, you could see why Team Biden would be comfortable waving off market concerns in a display of global U.S. leadership. But this remains far from clear. It’s one thing to tell other companies in other countries they’re permitted to copy, for example, Pfizer or Moderna’s mRNA technology; it’s another thing for them to actually put that in practice. 

The Latest in Burma

#WhatsHappeningInMyanmar is once again trending on Twitter, as opponents of Burma’s February 1 military coup share videos and images of state-perpetrated violence in an effort to project their plight worldwide. After 95 days under the illegitimate junta leadership—which has adopted methods including arbitrary detainment, torture, and extrajudicial execution to regain control of the country—protests persist with no signs of letting up. 

According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners—an independent group monitoring the situation in Burma post-military takeover—more than 3,700 people have been arrested, charged, or sentenced in connection to the protests. As of Thursday night, per the same organization, at least 770 people—including a nine-year-old child—have been killed by security forces during the crackdowns.

Despite widespread international outrage in response to the violence, the generals haven’t been shy about their methods. Myawaddy TV—Burma’s military-owned network—broadcasts nightly coverage of the demonstrations, featuring footage of bruised and bloodied protesters to deter others from taking to the streets. The junta announced a ban on satellite television Tuesday, restricting civilian access to independent Burmese language broadcasters credited with fostering dissent, like Mizzima and the Democratic Voice of Burma. 

Meet the New Boss

A couple days back, we covered the intra-party battle that is taking place within the House Republican conference, which will likely lead to Rep. Liz Cheney’s ouster from leadership next week.

In an excellent edition of Uphill today, Haley goes deep on Rep. Elise Stefanik, the 36-year-old from upstate New York widely expected to take Cheney’s place. Former President Trump endorsed Stefanik for the role earlier this week, which will all but surely give her the support she needs among Republicans—despite her relatively moderate voting record.

Who is Stefanik, and how did she get here?

Stefanik was formerly a White House policy adviser in George W. Bush’s administration. She represents New York’s rural 21st Congressional District, which she won by more than 22 points when she was first elected in 2014. She held the record as the youngest woman ever elected to Congress for several years, until Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won her race in 2018 at the age of 29.

Stefanik was once known primarily for her more moderate policy views and her efforts to encourage more GOP women to run for office. But she rose to MAGA stardom during Trump’s first impeachment inquiry, when she emerged as one of his most outspoken defenders. Her seat on the House intelligence panel gave her a high-profile role during the hearings, setting up clashes with committee chair Adam Schiff. The spotlight also enabled her to raise millions of dollars from Trump fans who were following the proceedings.

Worth Your Time

  • In a comprehensive piece on Medium, longtime science journalist Nicholas Wade digs into what we know—and what we still don’t—about the late 2019 genesis of SARS-CoV-2 in Wuhan. “There are two main theories about its origin. One is that it jumped naturally from wildlife to people. The other is that the virus was under study in a lab, from which it escaped. It matters a great deal which is the case if we hope to prevent a second such occurrence,” he writes, noting there is “no direct evidence” for either theory, but that most of the clues point toward a lab leak. “It’s documented that researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology were doing gain-of-function experiments designed to make coronaviruses infect human cells and humanized mice. This is exactly the kind of experiment from which a SARS2-like virus could have emerged. The researchers were not vaccinated against the viruses under study, and they were working in the minimal safety conditions of a BSL2 laboratory. So escape of a virus would not be at all surprising. In all of China, the pandemic broke out on the doorstep of the Wuhan institute.”

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Toeing the Company Line

  • Has the election audit in Maricopa County yielded hundreds of thousands of votes? No, finds Khaya’s latest Dispatch Fact Check. “At this time no evidence of voter fraud has been reported in Maricopa County from this audit. The official Arizona audit website has not released any information regarding the results.”

  • Chris Stirewalt is back on The Remnant this week, talking to Jonah about MAGA v. Liz Cheney, and President Biden supposedly ushering in a New Progressive Era.

  • David’s wife got a flat tire yesterday and needed a tow, so Sarah rode solo on Thursday’s episode of Advisory Opinions—at least until she was joined by Jonathan Ellis, an assistant to the solicitor general of the United States. Tune in to hear Jonathan chat about what it’s like representing the U.S. government in front of the Supreme Court, how many cases he argues per term, and more.

  • In this week’s Vital Interests (🔒), Thomas Joscelyn digs into how the Chinese government responded to President Biden’s address to Congress last week. “Obviously, the CCP has no interest in promoting real democracy,” he notes. “The CCP monopolizes China’s politics as an autocracy. What [China’s foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin] was really getting at is that the CCP doesn’t want the U.S. or other Western countries to promote their form of democracy first and foremost inside China, but also likely elsewhere.”

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Haley Byrd Wilt (@byrdinator), Audrey Fahlberg (@FahlOutBerg), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), Ryan Brown (@RyanP_Brown), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).