The Biden administration on Wednesday backed a waiver to suspend patent protects for coronavirus vaccines to expand vaccine access in developing nations, The New York Times reports.
The United States has been a holdout at the World Trade Organization over a proposal pushed by hard-hit India and South Africa to suspend the WTO’s intellectual property protections to provide vaccine formulas to manufacturers around the world.
“This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures,” US Trade Representative Katherine Tai said in a statement. “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.”
The US support does not guarantee that the waiver will be adopted but it does remove a major obstacle to the proposal.
The European Union has also been reluctant to agree to the waiver. Suspending the IP protections requires unanimous support from WTO members.
Tai said the US would enter negotiations but they will “take time given the consensus-based nature of the institution and the complexity of the issues involved.”
Global health activists praised the move after the administration came under pressure from pharmaceutical companies not to agree to the proposal.
Priti Krishtel, executive director of the Initiative for Medicines, Access & Knowledge, told the Times that Tai’s statement is “a truly historic step, which shows that President Biden is committed to being not just an American leader, but a global one.”
But the waiver alone would not be enough. It would have to be accompanied by a “tech transfer” in which the pharmaceutical giants that hold the patents must provide personnel and technical knowledge to global manufacturers.
Some experts have predicted that the Biden administration can reach a deal with pharmaceutical companies can live with. Others say it is preferable for existing manufacturers to provide vaccine doses to lower-income countries.
Pharma lashes out:
“Who will make the vaccine next time?” questioned former pharma executive Brent Saunders after the statement on Wednesday.
“Handing needy countries a recipe book without the ingredients, safeguards and sizable work force needed will not help people waiting for the vaccine,” Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath, the president of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, told the Times. “Handing them the blueprint to construct a kitchen that — in optimal conditions — can take a year to build will not help us stop the emergence of dangerous new Covid variants.”