by Laura Flanders and Terry McGovern
A pandemic is raging; the world needs vaccines, and a state-of-the-art factory capable of making those vaccines is closing its doors in West Virginia today. What is wrong with this picture?
Six months into the Biden administration, the COVID-19 pandemic surges across much of the United States and the world, driven by the highly contagious Delta variant and targeting those who remain unvaccinated. While U.S. vaccination rates stall due to vaccine hesitancy, much of the world’s population is still desperate for even a single dose. Meanwhile, as people die preventable deaths, the U.S.’s largest generic pharmaceutical plant is scheduled to stop domestic production today, July 31.
Until this month, the Viatris plant, formerly known as Mylan Pharmaceuticals in Morgantown, produced around 18 billion doses a year of 61 lifesaving generic drugs, including Levrothyroxine, a thyroid drug that millions of Americans take daily.
“We’ve never had a recall, never,” Joe Gouzd, a 22-year veteran at Mylan, told The Laura Flanders Show this week. Gouzd is president of the United Steelworkers local, which represents 850 of the highly skilled chemists, engineers, janitors and packers at the factory.
Before Mylan merged with Upjohn, an offshoot of the Pfizer Corporation, to create a new entity, Viatris, in November 2020, the Morgantown plant produced generic drugs for Medicare, Medicaid, the Veterans Administration and even the Defense Department.
It’s an FDA-compliant facility, perfectly capable of retrofitting to make vaccines, Gouzd told us. And yet, one of the first acts of the new company was to announce it was moving manufacturing to India and Australia. The planned offshoring of close to 2,000 total jobs will leave U.S. consumers with even fewer domestic sources for affordable generics, U.S. supply chains without a precious link, and Morgantown without one of its biggest- and most-significant employers. Economist Michael H. Shuman estimates the closure will cost Monongalia County hundreds of millions of dollars. “It’s the economic equivalent of a nuclear bomb going off,” he said.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The Biden Administration could step in. Gouzd, along with The Democracy Collaborative (a democratic economy think tank), Social Security Works, Our Revolution and others, is calling on the administration to invoke the Defense Production Act to keep the Morgantown plant operating until an alternative future for it can be found. (Once pharmaceutical plants close, regaining FDA approval is a lengthy process.)
At the same time, in conjunction with the Tokyo Olympics, the People’s Vaccine Alliance and Public Citizen are pushing rich countries to “Stop Playing Games” and invest in global vaccine manufacturing capacity.
Around the world, vaccine apartheid is causing unnecessary death and facilitating the spread of COVID-19 variants like Delta. In India, the vaccination rate stands at 24%; Zimbabwe, 8%; the Philippines, 9%; Liberia, just 2%.
Last Friday, dozens of members of Congress called for including additional funding in the reconciliation package currently under consideration in order to invest more in the production and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines worldwide, saying, “No investment in the fight against COVID-19 is more urgent and cost-effective now than an investment in getting the world vaccinated as quickly as possible.”
As a reporter and a public health expert, we’re seeing two stories come together: Everyone’s right to health and economic good sense.
Biden has said he opposes the offshoring of jobs. He’s called out Big Pharma in particular for moving production overseas. He’s also said he supports the TRIPS waiver (suspending private intellectual property and patent protections) so that vaccine production in other countries can gear up more easily. But the negotiations on the waiver are going slowly, and training and testing are going to take time. The world’s low- and middle-income countries need a reliable supply of generic vaccines now.
President Biden could still invoke the Defense Production Act today to keep the Viatris plant open in the name of protecting public health at home and abroad. He could scale up domestic production and produce billions of doses for a needy world at a retrofitted facility in the nation’s sixth-poorest state. Scale up production, save lives, save jobs; be a global leader. How about it, Mr. President?
Laura Flanders is the host and executive producer of the Laura Flanders Show, a nationally syndicated weekly public television program. Terry McGovern is the chair of the Heilbrunn Department of Population and Family Health at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and director of the Program On Global Health Justice and Governance. She also sits on the board of Curious Communications, the nonprofit organization that produces and distributes The Laura Flanders Show.