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Dave Gram Political Columnist

Former Vermont Governor Dean Fights Waiving Vaccine Patents for Developing Nations

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Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
TIM NEWCOMB
  • Tim Newcomb

When President Joe Biden's administration announced last week that it would drop U.S. opposition to generic drug makers in developing countries getting recipes for COVID-19 vaccines, the change in policy resonated loudly in Vermont.

It drew praise from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). "Our vaccination efforts here at home will only be successful if vaccination efforts in the developing world happen simultaneously," he said in a statement. "Supporting this [patent-protection] waiver, and putting people over profits, will help us to do that by speeding up the production and availability of vaccines."

But at least one Vermonter was grumpy: Howard Dean.

Dean? The former governor and former physician who signed civil unions into law? The man best remembered nationally as a progressive iconoclast in the race for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination? That guy is now joining big drug companies to defend patents and profits while poor countries around the world go begging for COVID-19 vaccines?

"I don't think this will do any good or make any additional doses available," Dean said. "I would have preferred to see a larger effort by Western countries to set up functional distribution centers in the developing countries." 

Dean always has been something of a political chameleon. When he sought the presidential nomination, many Vermonters were shocked to see him running up the left side of the field and claiming to represent "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party." After all, as governor he had famously claimed that more liberal and free-spending members of his own party in the legislature were in "la-la land." He'd also adopted the pro-business mantra "jobs, jobs, jobs," lowered income taxes twice, and generally sided with police and prosecutors in matters of criminal law.

But, in one respect, it made sense for a newcomer on the national political stage to run where there was room. Democratic moderates like then-Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman and Missouri U.S. representative Dick Gephardt were occupying the middle of the field; senator John Kerry, the eventual nominee, was defending his vote to support going to war in Iraq.

That sojourn on the left ended with a scream in Iowa. Dean, who let his Vermont medical license lapse in 2006, found a new way to use a physician's natural talents for the technical and the practical. He served as chair of the Democratic National Committee from 2005 to 2009. In that role, he brought to bear some of the internet-based organizing and fundraising techniques developed by his campaign, as well as a "50-state strategy" declaring that Democrats could win anywhere. He's widely credited with contributing to the party's successes in 2006 and 2008.

Since departing the political limelight, Dean, 72, has been serving on the board of the National Democratic Institute, a democracy-building organization chaired by former secretary of state Madeleine Albright. He's been teaching a course on global affairs at his alma mater, Yale University. He's also been working as a senior adviser at Dentons, the most influential global entity you've probably never heard of. When I say the world's largest law and lobbying firm is global, I mean that it has offices not only in Washington, D.C., London and Beijing, but also in places like Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.

It's in this last role that Dean has been making a splash and making cash lately, arguing on behalf of the pharmaceutical industry against letting manufacturers in developing nations have access to the vaccine recipes. 

"This is a BS issue," the famously blunt Dean told Fair Game, although he did, at least, use just the initials. "The truth is, if you got rid of all the intellectual property, you'd do harm and you wouldn't do any good. The intellectual property problem has nothing to do with the shortage of vaccines."

Waiving the vaccine patents "would have dire long-term implications," Dean wrote in an op-ed published by the business-oriented publication Barron's in March. "The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines were developed using mRNA, an approach that holds enormous potential for other diseases. But if the [intellectual property] behind those vaccines is suddenly exposed for all, it could dramatically lower the value of these platforms — and thus discourage further investments into these revolutionary technologies."

And vaccine patent waivers are not necessarily a panacea. The Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines require extremely cold refrigeration, something not widely available in Africa and other parts of the developing world. Dr. Alejandro Cravioto, chair of the World Health Organization's advisory panel on immunizations and former CEO of the South Korea-based International Vaccine Institute, brought up another hurdle in an email exchange with Fair Game.

"Making vaccines is not baking," he wrote. "You need more than the recipe to produce a vaccine and [must] have access to many products in the supply chain that have independent patents apart from the final product ... Getting these permits would take a long time and would make the transfer of the technology a very long process."

But where there's a will, there's a way, and in the face of a pandemic, there ought to be plenty of will. The alternative is to apply Dean's logic — that the patent waivers would "discourage further investments into these revolutionary technologies."

This reasoning, of course, describes a capitalist race to the moral bottom: Our profits are more important than beating COVID-19. If you don't let us maximize them, we're going to take our ball and go home. Well, here's an excellent chance for the pharmaceutical companies to show they're not just in it for the money.

Standing at the top of Burlington's Church Street before a throng of his supporters at his campaign kickoff in June 2003, Dean shouted, "You have the power" to bring about a better world. Many of those in the crowd were ready to hitch their hopes and dreams to this guy.

Dean says he's still just trying to find the best path forward. "If I thought lives would be saved by getting rid of intellectual property laws, I'd be happy to sign on," he said.

Is he sincere, or has Dean, a product of Park Avenue and Yale, merely swum back to his native stream, sold out and taken on work advising the rich on how to get richer?

Maybe it's both. But he's working for pay for a system that says if brown bodies pile up in the Global South, that's just a cost of doing business. It doesn't look good.

Watts' Happening?

Here's a shout-out to an endeavor seeded a couple years ago by the University of Vermont. The school's Community News Service has grown and thrived despite — or perhaps aided by — the pandemic.

CNS, as it is known, is a team of student journalists who have been reporting stories desperately needed by Vermont's struggling community newspapers and online news sites. The young reporters are led by a group of teacher-editors assembled by Richard Watts, director of the Center for Research on Vermont.

UVM doesn't have a journalism program. Instead, CNS is an offshoot of its 2-year-old program in Reporting and Documentary Storytelling, a minor managed by Watts' center in the College of Arts and Sciences. It's grown from a startup of five students in the summer of 2019 to about 50 at UVM today, plus more at the state colleges.

Students are assigned to cover specific communities; they are coached, and their stories edited, by professional journalists, among them CNS' top editor Cory Dawson, Seven Days' reporter Anne Wallace Allen and former VTDigger.org managing editor Colin Meyn. The program offers the stories at no cost — a boon to community newspapers that were struggling before the pandemic hit.

The student reporters seem to love the experience. Graduating senior Jen Lannom said she spent her first two years at UVM as a chemistry major, then switched to political science, got connected to CNS and now is shooting for a career in journalism. Working with CNS "clarified for me that this is what I really have a passion for," she said.

Lannom and fellow student John Ely said they didn't anticipate the thirst for local coverage. "The most surprising thing to me was how grateful residents were for covering their stories and getting news out to the towns," Ely said. "[That] made us all work diligently to put out the best pieces we could."

The editors of local papers say they love the help. "COVID-19 severely depleted the ranks of our correspondents; there were towns we simply could not cover," said Ray Small, editor of the Hardwick Gazette. "The CNS stepped in to help. The writing and adherence to the basics of journalism in the final product were first-rate."

Jessie Forand, managing editor of five papers including the Shelburne News and the Stowe Reporter, said the experience better prepares the students to join those depleted ranks after graduation. Student reporters get to build a clip file — a portfolio of samples of their work to show hiring editors when they venture out into the job market. Forand called this "priceless."

As an example of the value of CNS, she pointed to the work of student Lilly Young, who has been covering Shelburne. "With her contributions, we've been able to deeply examine the contentious conversations surrounding a local ham radio enthusiast whose application for radio towers has had neighbors buzzing at the thought of losing their idyllic landscape," Forand said.

Many of the students may not end up working as professional journalists. But as Tim Calabro, editor and publisher of the White River Valley Herald, noted, the UVM program may be building something equally important: newspaper readers. "It's the most satisfying thing in the world to be able to help grow an appreciation for community news," he said. "That part, I think, is vital for the industry's future and for all of society."

Despite all the talk of gloom and doom for the news media and journalism, I'm taking the energy being channeled by CNS as a sign of hope for the future.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Howard's Upend"