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US announces support for patent waiver on Covid vaccines

·6-min read
 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Joe Biden’s administration supports waiving intellectual property protections for Covid-19 vaccines, following global pressure to temporarily suspend patent provisions in the face of the public health crisis.

“These extraordinary times and circumstances call for extraordinary measures,” US trade ambassador Katherine Tai announced on Wednesday.

The World Trade Organization is mulling whether to temporarily waive the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights agreement, which has effectively provided pharmaceutical companies monopoly control over vaccine production, potentially locking out poor countries from expanding their supplies.

More than 100 developing countries have urged the organisation to waive those restrictions following a proposal that was filed jointly by India and South Africa back in October 2020.

Humanitarian aid groups and more than 400 government officials across the EU, including the World Health Organization’s director general, have also urged the WTO to lift intellectual property provisions on vaccines and equipment.

In the US, congressional Democrats have pressed the White House to reverse the US position, established under Donald Trump’s administration.

The Biden administration “believes strongly in intellectual property protections, but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections” for vaccine production, Ms Tai said in a statement.

Mr Biden’s administration will “actively participate in text-based negotiations” with the WTO “to make that happen,” she said, adding that those negotiations “will take time given the consensus-based nature of the institution and the complexity of the issues involved.”

WTO general director Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala urged members to share vaccine supplies and find a “pragmatic way forward” on the TRIPS waiver. More discussions on the issue are expected in the coming weeks.

“Too many people are dying, as many members have already repeated with numbers,” she told the WTO’s general council on Wednesday. “We need to treat this whole issue with a sense of urgency.”

Shares in major pharmaceutical companies fell sharply following Ms Tai’s announcement, with Pfizer, Moderna, BioNtech and Novavax share prices plunging to session lows.

Facing questions about US support for the proposal as India and South America face alarming rates of infections, White House officials in recent days have pointed to other efforts to expand global vaccine production and distribution, with a patent waiver representing only a partial solution.

“Going back and forth, consuming time and lawyers in a legal argument about waivers – that is not the end game,” Dr Anthony Fauci, the president’s chief medical adviser, told Financial Times this week. “People are dying around the world and we have to get vaccines into their arms in the fastest and most efficient way possible.”

Other officials pointed to other efforts to scale-up distribution and help produce vaccines in other countries, including a pledge to share up to 60 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine and shipping out materials to help India boost production of its own Covishield vaccine.

Moderna – one of three drug makers with available vaccines in the US, including Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson – has also pledged up to 500 million doses of its vaccine to Covax, the United Nations effort to boost global vaccine supply. Through its agreement, the company will provide its first 34 million doses by the end of the year with the rest through 2022.

In an interview from July 2020, Mr Biden told activist Ady Barkan that he “absolutely, positively” supports waiving patent protections on Covid-19 vaccines.

“This is the only humane thing in the world to do,” Mr Biden said.

A video of Mr Biden responding to whether he supports sharing vaccine technology without a patent blockade has urged the president to “keep his word”.

In the video, Mr Barkan says “all eyes will be on America” as the WTO convenes this week.

“We will decide the answer to the world’s plea,” he says. “What kind of leadership will we display? The answer, Mr President, is up to you.”

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Among waiver opponents is Bill Gates, a staunch defender of intellectual property provisions and whose Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has sponsored Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, a public-private global health initiative that is the driving force behind Covax.

The Gates Foundation said in a statement that the organisation is “focused on the policy and process barriers that stand in the way of equitable access to vaccines”, leaving the waiver decision up to the WTO.

In March, WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus asked: “If a temporary waiver to patents cannot be issued now, during these unprecedented times, when will be the right time?”

“Solidarity is the way out,” he said.

Senator Bernie Sanders, who has joined congressional Democrats to reverse the US position on patent waivers, told NBC’s Meet the Press that “there is something morally objectionable about rich countries being able to get that vaccine, and yet millions and billions of people in poor countries are unable to afford it.”

The senator added that the US has a “moral responsibility” to help the rest of the world combat the pandemic, which is also “in our self-interest, because if this pandemic continues to spread in other countries, it is going to come back and bite us at one point or another.”

Despite early warnings and pleas from humanitarian aid groups and poor countries to waive intellectual property rights to allow them to develop their own vaccines in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, fewer than 1 per cent of existing doses were administered in low-income countries by the end of March.

More than 86 per cent of vaccine shots around the world have gone into the arms of people in wealthier countries, according to UNICEF data analysed by The New York Times.

The American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to Mr Biden on Wednesday urging the administration to support the waiver.

“Vaccine distribution is deeply inequitable at home, but even more so abroad,” ACLU Human Rights Program director Jamil Dakwar said in a statement. “This extremely slow and inequitable distribution has dire consequences for billions of people around the world. Ensuring everyone has access to Covid-19 vaccines is a racial justice issue and a public health necessity.”

Oxfam’s Health Policy Manager Anna Marriott said the US reversal “is a testament to the widespread public movement calling for an end to vaccine monopolies.”

“We are at a crucial point in the fight against coronavirus, yet we have remained essentially at the mercy of a handful of giant pharmaceutical corporations that have monopoly control over the life-saving technologies we all need,” she said in a statement.

Nick Dearden, Director of Global Justice Now, part of the People’s Vaccine campaign, called the Biden administration’s announcement a “watershed moment” that could mark the “beginning of the end of vaccine apartheid, if other leaders like Boris Johnson stop standing in the way.”

“The UK, EU and all remaining blockers need to get out of the way and let the whole world work to contain this awful virus as quickly as possible,” he said in a statement to The Independent.

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