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Regional Interests

News Brief: Vaccine Patent Waiver, Eviction Moratorium, Scottish Election

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Biden's administration says it wants vaccine makers to share what they know.

NOEL KING, HOST:

That's right. The administration says it supports what's called a waiver for intellectual property rights on vaccines. That waiver has to come from the World Trade Organization. This is an effort to speed up vaccinations around the world, especially in really hard-hit countries like India. Now, pharmaceutical companies are resisting, saying this will not work like it's expected to.

INSKEEP: NPR has a pharmaceuticals correspondent, Sydney Lupkin, who's on the line. Good morning.

SYDNEY LUPKIN, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: How is this waiver supposed to work?

LUPKIN: So this is a proposed waiver of parts of a 1995 global intellectual property agreement through the World Trade Organization. There are a few things in there, but the most important thing is that it would allow other countries to jump in on the vaccine patents, allowing them to start making vaccines on their own without waiting for companies like Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson to supply them. Here's James Love, director of Knowledge Ecology International, a nonprofit public interest group that supports the waiver.

JAMES LOVE: If you look at the sequence of things that have to happen, you get scaling up manufacturing. The first, for a company, decision they have to make is is it legal for me to do this thing? Am I going to go to jail? Am I going to be hit with a big infringement claim?

LUPKIN: So countries could bypass the exclusive rights of the patents, maybe with a royalty payment of some kind. And other countries really are struggling. While about a third of the U.S. population is now fully vaccinated in India, that number is only 2%. So overall, this would remove a barrier for them.

INSKEEP: Yeah, and India, of course, has huge manufacturing capacity if they can get it scaled up and get the things directed to themselves. But would the patents be the only barrier here?

LUPKIN: No. Vaccines are made from living cells, so they're really complicated to make, much more complicated than, say, generic drugs. So patent sharing doesn't solve the issue of having factories with the right manufacturing capabilities, for instance. Companies also need trained workers, raw ingredients, equipment, supplies and know-how. And in the United States, where companies had the patents because they belong to them to begin with, they ran into these issues. So I spoke with John Grabenstein, a former Merck executive who now works at the Immunization Action Coalition. Here's how he explained it to me.

JOHN GRABENSTEIN: When you have a cookbook, it doesn't come out necessarily the way the originator wrote the recipe.

LUPKIN: So waiving the patents won't be a magic wand, he says.

INSKEEP: OK, but to take that analogy, the waiver would hand over the recipe. That would remove one barrier, as you said. So why would vaccine makers resist that?

LUPKIN: Yeah, this is basically the opposite of what they hoped for. And the pharmaceutical industry has come out in strong opposition. Pharma, the industry trade group, says the Biden administration's support for the waiver undermines the pandemic response. They say it will weaken already strained supply chains. There's also the argument that this could have repercussions for innovation. Remember, the companies like Pfizer and Moderna researched and developed these vaccines in record time. It usually takes five to 10 years, and they did it in a few months. And for that effort, some say they should be able to hang on to their intellectual property and, you know, make a profit. Though, of course, the companies that - you know, had help and money from the United States government and others. And we're in the middle of a global health crisis, and it's far from over.

INSKEEP: Sydney, thanks so much.

LUPKIN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR's Sydney Lupkin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: At some point, people who fell behind on the rent during the pandemic will have to pay.

KING: A court ruling yesterday came close to saying the bill is due now. You might remember the CDC imposed a moratorium on evictions because you cannot isolate at home if you don't have a home. Yesterday, a judge overturned that moratorium, but then she restored it temporarily to allow for an appeal.

INSKEEP: NPR's Chris Arnold is reporting on a case that could affect millions of people. Chris, good morning.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What are the legal arguments here?

ARNOLD: Well, the case was brought by the Alabama Association of Realtors, and they were basically arguing that, look, that the CDC doesn't have the power to tell landlords that they can't evict their tenants if they want to, even in the middle of the worst pandemic in 100 years. And the judge agreed. The judge is Dabney Friedrich. She was appointed by the Trump administration. It's clear that the CDC has the ability to order certain things to prevent the spread of disease, especially in times like this. But the judge said here the CDC overreached. There have been conflicting decisions. Other judges have come to other conclusions. But the bottom line in all this is that this decision or this ruling goes far beyond any of the others. And on its face, it would strike down this eviction moratorium nationwide.

INSKEEP: But there's a bottom line below the bottom line, a sort of bottom bottom line, that the judge held off imposing her own ruling. Why?

ARNOLD: Yeah, this is getting into the weeds. And the main reason that the judge did that appears to be that the Department of Justice immediately appealed this case on behalf of the CDC. I talked to Shamus Roller about this. He's a lawyer. He heads up the National Housing Law Project.

SHAMUS ROLLER: The underlying ruling in this case is pretty weak, in my opinion, because Congress in December extended the CDC order. So clearly, Congress thinks that the CDC has this authority.

ARNOLD: And as you said, we found out late last night that the judge has agreed to put her ruling on hold for at least a week. We're not exactly clear. So there's not going to be an immediate effect. But the judge stressed that she is standing behind her ruling. And Roller says, look, we just don't know how this appeals process is going to play out. And he says it's true that the CDC order was issued during the Trump administration. But Trump appointed a lot of conservative federal judges, and Roller suspects that they, too, could be likely to rule against the CDC exerting its power in this way, telling landlords you can't evict tenants. And he says, you know, all this is going to be decided by a panel of just three judges. So the outcome of - that will affect so many people is going to depend greatly on which three judges get selected.

INSKEEP: What are landlords saying?

ARNOLD: Well, landlords aren't exactly celebrating. I mean, they don't want to look like they're eager to evict people and some are not. But they say, you know, look, the economy is picking up. They want things to get back to normal. They want to have control of their properties again. They have bills to pay. And in a statement, the realtor group that brought this case said that this will bring needed relief to mom-and-pop landlords. And it also said that the focus now should be on getting emergency rental assistance money to tenants so that the landlords don't have to evict them.

INSKEEP: Oh, well, Congress did pass a lot of money for that. How's it working?

ARNOLD: Congress did pass a lot. It was about $50 billion for renters and landlords so they could avoid evictions. But in a lot of places, Steve, this is just not reaching the vast majority of people that need it yet. And that is what people like Roller are really worried about, that a lot of landlords are going to get fed up. There are these portals set up, and it's taking a while. And they just feel like they're going to decide to just evict people and move on. Meanwhile, there's a housing shortage. The economy's been recovering, so it's often really easy to find new tenants. So that could mean that a lot of people get evicted when they could have qualified for help. And the Census Bureau is saying, look, you know, there are 7 million households out there right now that are behind on the rent. An eviction on your record makes it hard to find another place. So the worry is that many people could end up homeless.

INSKEEP: Seven million. Chris, thanks.

ARNOLD: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Chris Arnold.

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INSKEEP: Let's look outside the United States now. Scottish voters are at the polls today in their regional parliamentary elections.

KING: Yes. And pro-independence parties are expected to win a majority. Now, there's some context here. This is post Brexit, of course, and the pandemic has dimmed the Scottish economy. Britain's prime minister, Boris Johnson, is reminding people that another referendum seven years ago failed.

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PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: This is not the time to have a reckless and, I think, irresponsible second referendum. We had one only a few years ago.

INSKEEP: NPR's Frank Langfitt is covering the parliamentary elections in Edinburgh. Hey there, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey, good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: And I guess we should be clear here. This is not a referendum, but it is an election for officials who plausibly could call for one. So where are you and what are you hearing from voters?

LANGFITT: Yeah, so I'm out on the Royal Mile. This is sort of a medieval heart of Edinburgh. And I've been talking to pro-independence voters. And the feeling here is people want to be able to make their own decisions in Scotland, free from England, which is politically a lot more conservative. Scotland's much more politically liberal and, frankly, European in its outlook. And as Noel was pointing out, you know, Scotland actually voted heavily to stay in the EU but was outvoted by England 10 - because England has 10 times as many people. I was talking to a voter today, Neil Farquharson (ph). He's a software designer, and this is the way he sees it.

NEIL FARQUHARSON: It's a normal situation for a country to be independent. We'd probably, I would guess, wouldn't be getting involved in foreign wars, which cause billions. You know, you got control over your own destiny.

LANGFITT: What Neil's talking about there is a real desire here by a lot of people to just be able to vote on everything and make all of their own decisions.

INSKEEP: Interesting because that is a similar argument that people in the U.K. made for leaving Europe in the first place. What are you hearing?

LANGFITT: (Laughter) You are not the first person to make that observation, Steve.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) Everybody's flipped around on their idea of independence. So what are you hearing from people in Scotland who want to stay in the U.K.?

LANGFITT: Well, it's interesting. I think that - I was talking to a guy named Jonathan Ainslie just up the street here. He studies Roman law at The University of Edinburgh. He feels both British and Scottish. And he says - and this gets to your earlier point - he would like to be part of a larger entity, particularly in an increasingly dangerous world. This is what he told me.

JONATHAN AINSLIE: I think the union is important for our national security. I think it's important to support Scotland's economy in the future. But more important than any of that, if we were to become independent, I would feel that I was robbed of my British identity.

INSKEEP: Well, if pro-independence parties should do well in today's election, what happens next?

LANGFITT: I think Boris Johnson is going to say no. And the independence parties here, particularly the Scottish National Party, which is dominant, they will probably go to court. And I think you'll see a battle royal and potentially a constitutional crisis during a period when, you know, it has been chaotic politics for the last three or four years here.

INSKEEP: What is the American interest in all of this?

LANGFITT: Big. This is - the U.K. is America's closest ally. If the U.K. were to break up, this would be very bad for the United States and other Western countries that rely on U.K. support militarily, diplomatically and otherwise, and would be very good, frankly, for an increasingly assertive China and Russia.

INSKEEP: Frank, thanks very much.

LANGFITT: Great to talk, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt from Scotland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.