Biden Supports Waiving Intellectual Property for COVID-19 Vaccines

As some countries are seeing sharp increases in COVID-19 case rates and deaths, the push to vaccinate globally is even more urgent. Companies producing COVID-19 vaccines have patents on their vaccines that prevent other companies or organizations from producing the same product. Patents were originally created as a way to encourage innovation and investment in research and development, but given the critical nature of COVID-19 vaccines, the limited ability of the patent holders to create vaccines, and the costs associated with trying to license them or buy vaccines from those companies (particularly impactful on poorer countries), there has been a call from other countries to waive those patent protections in order to expand vaccinations across the globe. India and South Africa brought the move to waive patents to the World Trade Organization, but has been receiving pushback from the United States, United Kingdom, Japan, and the European Union. Earlier this week, President Biden released a statement that he supported the waiver of patents for the COVID-19 vaccines. This is an unprecedented move for the United States, but does not come without pushback and disagreement. While this is a step in the right direction, the World Trade Organization will not move forward until all members agree with the waiver. Waiving patents is the only one part of the process to increase vaccine production and will not have an immediate effect. Currently, the richest countries have secured over half of the world’s COVID-19 vaccine doses, leaving many low income countries with minimal to no vaccines. Even in Canada, vaccine doses are limited enough that second doses of Pfizer and Moderna are being scheduled four months after the first dose, in stark contrast to the 3 to 4 weeks between shots in the United States. In a global pandemic, vaccine equity is crucial - in addition to the ethical imperative to save lives of people around the globe, regardless of what country they happen to live in, unvaccinated populations in other countries create a reservoir in which a virus can continue to exist and mutuate, and can then re-spread to countries that had been vaccinated against the original strains. The United States has almost double the amount of vaccines needed to vaccinate everyone in the country. At this rate, some countries are not projected to receive vaccines until 2022 or 2023, which is cause for major concern. While the United States has agreed to send 60 million doses to India, more needs to be done to properly allocate vaccines globally. Hoarding vaccinations and using patents to block production and access is harmful to all countries. Stopping this pandemic takes collaboration and support, and so far, that has not been demonstrated by most world powers. 

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Michigan Updates Outdoor Mask Requirements

On Thursday, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services updated the Gathering and Face Mask Order for the state, adding two new exemptions to face mask requirements:

Individuals who are "at a residential gathering, and are fully vaccinated and not experiencing the principal symptoms of COVID-19"

Individuals "at an outdoor gathering with fewer than 100 persons, unless otherwise required to mask as an organized sport participant."

Other changes were made related to sports: "New guidance for organized sports no longer requires routine COVID-19 testing for fully vaccinated participants if they are asymptomatic. Masks continue to be required for contact sports but are no longer required outdoors during active practice and competition for non-contact sports." Additionally, capacity limits for large outdoor events, outdoor arenas, and residential outdoor gatherings have been changed.

Queering Medicine continues to recommend that people wear a face mask at outdoor gatherings and events, even without a legal requirement to do so. The pandemic is not over, Michigan is still a COVID-19 hot spot, vaccines may not protect as well against some virus variants, we are not certain whether fully vaccinated people can still transmit the virus, and masks are an easy way to help prevent the spread of the COVID-19. Please get vaccinated as soon as you are able to do so, and remember that it takes weeks after being vaccinated for the vaccine to be fully effective (you are not "fully vaccinated" as soon as you receive your final shot).

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FDA May Authorize Pfizer COVID-19 Vaccine for Adolescents Aged 12-15 

The FDA will potentially authorize the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for adolescents aged 12-15 starting early this coming week. If the vaccine is authorized for this age group, the CDC’s vaccine advisory panel will meet soon after to set vaccination recommendations and guidelines prior allowing the vaccine to be administered nationwide. Vaccination of those aged 12-15 will be incredibly crucial if we are to decrease transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19 and potentially reach herd immunity. It will also be necessary if adolescents are to be able to return to school safely, protecting each other as well as their families and anybody else they come in contact with. Currently, the Pfizer vaccine is only approved for those aged 16 and up in the U.S. Internationally, Canada approved the Pfizer vaccine for use in 12-15 year olds last week, making it the first country to do so.

In addition, Pfizer is looking to seek approval for their vaccine to be used in those ages 2-11 in September. Research is still ongoing for vaccine effectiveness in younger populations by many COVID-19 vaccine producers, also including Moderna. In addition, Pfizer recently released a statement on seeking full FDA approval for their COVID-19 vaccine. Currently, all COVID-19 vaccines being used in the U.S. are doing so under Emergency Use Authorizations, an approach that was necessary for a more rapid response to approval during the pandemic. With full approval, Pfizer will be required to show more long-term efficacy and that the vaccinations continue to be safe, with benefits outweighing the risks. While this will not significantly impact current vaccination efforts that are underway, it is an important cornerstone in confirming the safety and efficacy of the vaccine long term. 

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Men Less Likely to Get Vaccine Despite Being More Likely to Die of COVID-19

Men have been found to be at higher risk of dying from COVID-19 in the United States than women (30% more men have died than women), but 4.8% fewer men have been vaccinated. The pattern is the same locally in Michigan: 17% more men have died from COVID-19 in the state than women, but men have received 17% fewer vaccine doses than women. The vaccination gap exists for every age group in Michigan.

There are several likely contributing factors, according to researchers: Women are more likely to be proactive about health care (including being significantly more likely to get an annual flu shot), men are more likely to be Republicans (which has been directly tied to COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy and refusal), and polls have shown that women are more worried that they or someone in their family will catch COVID-19. Some of these are directly tied to toxic masculinity in US culture, which puts pressure on men to ignore health issues lest they been seen as weak.

Comparable data on non-binary and gender-diverse people is not available, as most government data collection and reporting systems (including those used for COVID-19 cases and vaccinations in Michigan) only include binary gender options.

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COVID-19 Crisis Worsens in India

Data from earlier this week indicates that India now accounts for nearly half of all new COVID-19 cases reported worldwide. Cases are surging in the county, with infections now over 21 million people, at least 240,000 people have died of the disease, over 375,000 cases per day, and over 4,000 reported dead yesterday alone (the highest daily number of deaths during the pandemic). Given the failures of the medical system and lack of tests available, the real numbers are likely to be much higher. Multiple more infectious strains of the virus that causes COVID-19 are now becoming dominant in the country.

Cases were declining in the country during the winter and the government declared that the epidemic was ending and false claims were made that the country had reached herd immunity (despite tests showing that less than a quarter of the population had antibodies against the virus that causes COVID-19). The government has allowed large political rallies with thousands of people and religious festivals with millions of people crowded together without social distancing or widespread mask use. Vaccination programs have had significant problems, and to date, fewer than 10% of people in the country have received one dose of a vaccine and only about 2% have been fully vaccinated. In many parts of the country, hospitals are full and medical oxygen is frequently not available. People across the country and around the world have blamed the Indian federal government for these and other failures that have exacerbated the crisis.

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DOJ Files Brief Stating That It's Unconstitutional to Put Trans Women in Men's Prisons

On April 22nd, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a Statement of Interest in a lawsuit brought by a Black trans woman against the Georgia Department of Corrections. Ashley Diamond filed the suit last year, claiming that she is being subjected to cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of the Eighth Amendment, because she is at substantial risk of sexual abuse and assault by being housed in men's facilities and the prison has failed to provide health care for gender dysphoria.

The Department of Justice's filing agrees with Diamond, stating that "Prison officials violate the Constitution by (1) categorically refusing to assign transgender prisoners to housing that corresponds to their gender identity even if an individualized risk assessment indicates that doing so is necessary to mitigate a substantial risk of serious harm, and (2) failing to individualize the medical care of transgender prisoners for the treatment of gender dysphoria." While the filing is groundbreaking and positive, the courts are the arbiters of Constitutionality, and no ruling has yet been issued.

Diamond originally filed a lawsuit in 2015 for being denied hormone therapy. She was released from prison that year, but was sent back for a technical parole violation in 2018. In both instances, she was placed in men's prison facilities.

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This Week's QM Round-Up Contributors (in alphabetical order):