Why Big Pharma's arguments against patent waivers don’t add up

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Jacksonville, Fla. - Barbara Bufano gets the COVID-19 vaccine at Naval Hospital Jacksonville in Jacksonville, Fla., Jan. 15, 2021. Vaccines are currently being offered to on-base health care personnel and first responders assigned to Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Naval Station Mayport and critical national capabilities forces, deploying forces, frontline essential workers, and beneficiaries age 75 and older. COVID-19 vaccines are not available by walk-in for non-hospital personnel.

Days after he publicly opposed the waiving of patents for lifesaving COVID-19 vaccines, billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates had a change of heart. He released a statement saying, "No barriers should stand in the way of equitable access to vaccines, including intellectual property, which is why we are supportive of a narrow waiver during the pandemic." His statement came after President Joe Biden, in a surprising move, and in contrast to his European allies, backed a temporary waiver on COVID-19 vaccine patents. U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai released a statement saying, "extraordinary circumstances… call for extraordinary measures." Immediately, the big drugmakers' share prices fell, and they shot back in anger with a litany of dire predictions.

Gates had been singing a different tune just a few weeks earlier, expressing opposition to vaccine patent waivers when he said in an interview, "The thing that's holding things back in this case is not intellectual property. There's not like some idle vaccine factory, with regulatory approval, that makes magically safe vaccines."

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Imagine you've forgotten once again the difference between a gorilla and a chimpanzee, so you do a quick Google image search of “gorilla." But instead of finding images of adorable animals, photos of a Black couple pop up.

Is this just a glitch in the algorithm? Or, is Google an ad company, not an information company, that's replicating the discrimination of the world it operates in? How can this discrimination be addressed and who is accountable for it?

“These platforms are encoded with racism," says UCLA professor and best-selling author of Algorithms of Oppression, Dr. Safiya Noble. “The logic is racist and sexist because it would allow for these kinds of false, misleading, kinds of results to come to the fore…There are unfortunately thousands of examples now of harm that comes from algorithmic discrimination."

On At Liberty this week, Dr. Noble joined us to discuss what she calls “algorithmic oppression," and what needs to be done to end this kind of bias and dismantle systemic racism in software, predictive analytics, search platforms, surveillance systems, and other technologies.

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