U.S. to support intellectual property waiver for COVID-19 vaccines

United States Trade Representative (USTR) Katherine Tai. File   | Photo Credit: AFP

The United States will support an initiative at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to waive Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) protection for COVID-19 vaccines, the Biden administration said on Wednesday. The news will support the increased production of vaccines globally as countries, including India, continue to reel under the impact of the pandemic. The initiative was first floated by India and South Africa last October.

"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," United States Trade Representative Katherine Tai announced, adding that the "extraordinary circumstances" called for "extraordinary measures."

Ms. Tai also said that the negotiations to effect the IP waiver would take time.

"We will actively participate in text-based negotiations at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) needed to make that happen. Those negotiations will take time given the consensus-based nature of the institution and the complexity of the issues involved," she said.

Earlier on Wednesday, WTO Director General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala held discussions in with ambassadors from developed and developing countries to discuss access to COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics, based on an Indian and South African initiative first launched in October 2020.

Over a 100 countries have supported the proposal, according to the Associated Press. U.S. President Joe Biden has also been under growing pressure, domestically, to support a waiver, with 110 Democratic Members of Congress writing to him last week on the issue. Earlier in April, Bernie Sanders and nine Democratic Senators, including Elizabeth Warren, had also written to the President in support of a waiver.

Opposition galore

There has been opposition to the waiver from some quarters of Capitol Hill. Twelve GOP Members of Congress wrote to Mr. Biden on Tuesday urging him to consider other means to increase vaccine access that did not involve weaking IP protections, which, they argued, were not a manufacturing bottleneck. Weakening protections would hamper American competitiveness and innovation, they said. Some in industry have also opposed the plan.

"In the midst of a deadly pandemic, the Biden Administration has taken an unprecedented step that will undermine our global response to the pandemic and compromise safety," said Stephen Ubl, head of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, according to the Associated Press. Among the arguments proffered to retain IP protection are that biotech jobs will be transferred from the U.S. to foreign countries and that waiving IP still not does overcome bottlenecks like manufacturing capacity.

Significant amounts of public funding went into these companies’ vaccines. For instance, Moderna received at least $953.6 million in public funding and Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine received over $800 million, according to Forbes which tracked investment across these manufacturers.

On Tuesday, Mr. Biden said that the U.S. would produce as many vaccines as possible and export them. At present, three vaccines are approved for use in the U.S. — from Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson. The U.S. plans to send 60 million doses of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine to other countries over May and June.

Ms. Tai reiterated the plan to produce more vaccines. "The Administration's aim is to get as many safe and effective vaccines to as many people as fast as possible," she said.

"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," she said.

Several lawmakers applauded the news of the waiver.

"Let’s do insulin next," progressive Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, with a graph indicating that the share prices of some vaccine manufacturers had plunged following the announcement.

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Printable version | Jun 22, 2021 9:42:47 AM |

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