US Backs Waiving Intellectual Property Rules on Vaccines

May 5, 2021 by Dan McCue
U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai testifies during a Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Sarah Silbiger/Pool via AP, File)

WASHINGTON – The Biden administration announced Wednesday that it will support efforts to waive intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines in an effort to speed the end of the pandemic.

United States Trade Representative Katherine Tai announced the government’s position in written statement, amid World Trade Organization talks over easing global trade rules to enable more countries to produce more of the life-saving vaccines.

“This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures,” Tai said. “The administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections, but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for COVID-19 vaccines,” she continued.

“The administration’s aim is to get as many safe and effective vaccines to as many people as fast as possible,” Tai added. “As our vaccine supply for the American people is secured, the administration will continue to ramp up its efforts – working with the private sector and all possible partners – to expand vaccine manufacturing and distribution.  It will also work to increase the raw materials needed to produce those vaccines.”

But Tai also cautioned that it would take time to reach the required global “consensus” to waive the protections under WTO rules, and U.S. officials said it would not have an immediate effect on the global supply of COVID-19 shots.

The WTO’s General Council — made up of ambassadors — was taking up the pivotal issue of a temporary waiver for intellectual property protections on COVID-19 vaccines and other tools, which South Africa and India first proposed in October. The idea has gained support in the developing world and among some progressive lawmakers in the West.

No consensus — which is required under WTO rules — was expected to emerge from the ambassadors’ two-day meeting Wednesday and Thursday.

 A WTO panel on intellectual property was set to take up the waiver proposal again at a “tentative” meeting later this month, before a formal meeting June 8-9.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Wednesday that the Biden administration’s announcement is a welcome and important step in the fight to crush the virus globally. 

“The president is to be commended for the United States’ plans to take a strong role in negotiations that are focused on how best to ensure that all countries have access to lifesaving treatments and vaccines during this extraordinary pandemic,” Pelosi said.

“We must also continue to provide the resources and assistance needed to turbocharge the production and deployment of vaccines, in order to vaccinate as many people as quickly as possible as the virus rages in many parts of the world,” she continued. 

“Accelerating the production and distribution of life-saving vaccines across the globe is both a moral imperative and an urgent necessity to crush the virus pandemic and prevent the spread of more virulent coronavirus variants.  We cannot be fully safe from the virus anywhere until we defeat it everywhere,” Pelosi added.

But not everyone agreed with the Biden administration’s decision on Wednesday. Stephen J. Ubl, president and CEO of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, called it an “unprecedented step that will undermine our global response to the pandemic and compromise safety.” 

“This decision will sow confusion between public and private partners, further weaken already strained supply chains and foster the proliferation of counterfeit vaccines,” he continued, adding the change “in longstanding American policy will not save lives.

“It also flies in the face of President Biden’s stated policy of building up American infrastructure and creating jobs by handing over American innovations to countries looking to undermine our leadership in biomedical discovery,” Ubl said. “This decision does nothing to address the real challenges to getting more shots in arms, including last-mile distribution and limited availability of raw materials. These are the real challenges we face that this empty promise ignores.”

He went on to say that in the past few days alone, we’ve seen more American vaccine exports, increased production targets from manufacturers, new commitments to COVAX and unprecedented aid for India during its devastating COVID-19 surge.

“Biopharmaceutical manufacturers are fully committed to providing global access to COVID-19 vaccines, and they are collaborating at a scale that was previously unimaginable, including more than 200 manufacturing and other partnerships to date,” Ubl said. “The biopharmaceutical industry shares the goal to get as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible, and we hope we can all re-focus on that shared objective.”

 Last month, a group of senators urged President Joe Biden to support the international push to make the basic formula for the COVID-19 vaccine available to less affluent countries that are experiencing vaccine shortages.

“Simply put, we must make vaccines, testing, and treatments accessible everywhere if we are going to crush the virus anywhere,” the lawmakers said in a letter delivered to the president on April 21.

The letter writers, led by Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, threw their own support behind an effort championed by India and South Africa and more than 100 World Trade Organization member nations to temporarily suspend certain vaccine-related intellectual property rights.

The proposed patent waiver would enable manufacturers to replicate vaccine formulas that are currently under the exclusive control of large pharmaceutical companies.

“Allowing countries to manufacture locally will expedite access to vaccines and treatment, prevent unnecessary deaths, expedite global vaccination efforts, and facilitate a stronger, faster economic recovery,” the senators wrote.

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