President Biden announced US support for a World Trade Organization proposal to waive intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines. Specifically, this allows vaccine-disadvantaged countries ravaged by COVID-19 to manufacture their own vaccines.
U.S. trade representative Katherine Tai issued a statement on the US support for the waiver. “This is a global health crisis and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures.
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 statement read.
The US vaccination drive is slowing down as more people receive their shots. In many areas, the supply of vaccine doses outnumbers the people who have yet to get or want one.
Meanwhile, many countries are still experiencing surges of the coronavirus. India is currently the global epicenter of the pandemic. Despite the crisis, only 2% of the population received vaccinations.
Addressing the Inequity
The World Trade Organization proposes to allow countries to manufacture vaccines locally. In particular, many nations propose a waiver of rights for COVID-19 vaccines.
Otherwise, countries will have to wait for availability despite the urgency. Last year, many developed countries placed advanced orders for vaccines. They did so even before COVID-19 vaccines received emergency approvals. As a result, vaccine companies are still fulfilling deliveries to early bird countries.
The alternative to not allowing the waiver is devastating. Mustaqeem de Gama, South Africa's WTO counselor fears there is more at stake.
The damages are “not only on the level of the loss of human lives” but also on the economic level. “We believe that intellectual property rights constitute a very substantial barrier to ensure equitable access.
We believe that if we could have a limited, targeted waiver to ensure that we can ramp up production in various parts of the world, we would go a long way to ensure that we address not only the prevention but also the treatment of COVID-19,” de Gama added.
Waiver Resistance From Developed Nations
Prior to Wednesday’s announcement, many developed nations resisted the WTO proposal. This included the US, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Japan. When the US said it would back the WTO proposal, the country’s drug industry said they oppose the measure. The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America said this decision subverts US policy.
In a statement, the PRMA decried the US decision. They said Biden took an unprecedented step while a pandemic goes on. The PRMA said this undermines the US' response to the pandemic and compromises safety.
In addition, this will also sow confusion between public and private partners. It also further weakens strained supply chains. Finally, waiving IPs can foster the spread of counterfeit vaccines. As such, the US stands to jeopardize its standing as a biomedical innovation leader.
Similar to AIDS Efforts
The WTO proposal echoes a similar issue during the 1990s. Drug companies and global health officials were at odds on how to control the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Pharma companies opposed health officials' pleas to release patents on medicines. This will drive down costs and help more patients in poor countries. Drugmakers only relented when South Africa President Nelson Mandela went on the offensive. He accused them of trying to profit from his country's health crisis.
Ultimately, the two sides agreed to a compromise. The result is the WTO's Doha Declaration. It allowed low-income nations to import and develop generic versions of patented medicines. The declaration became part of the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS).
World Health Organization Thanks the US
Meanwhile, the World Health Organization praised the Biden administration's support. WHO Director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus posted his gratitude on Twitter. “This is a monumental moment in the fight against #COVID19,” he posted. He said that the US commitment to supporting the waiver is a powerful example of leadership.
Watch the CNBC Television video reporting that the Biden administration supports waiver of patent protections for Covid vaccines:
Do you agree with removing patent limitations for COVID-19 vaccines? Do you support allowing poorer countries to manufacture vaccines for their own use? Or, do you support pharmaceutical companies in insisting their IPs remain theirs?
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