Biden backs plan to give poorer countries access to Covid-19 vaccine; WTO hails it ‘historic’ (Reuters Photo)
US president Joe Biden has announced support to waive intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines, bowing to mounting pressure from Democratic lawmakers and more than 100 other countries, but angering pharmaceutical companies.
India, where the death toll hit a new daily record amid fears the peak is still to come, has been leading the fight within the World Trade Organization (WTO) to allow more drugmakers to manufacture the vaccines.
US Trade Representative Katherine Tai said that while intellectual property rights for businesses are important, Washington ‘supports the waiver of those protections for Covid-19 vaccines’ in order to end the pandemic.
“This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures,” she said in a statement.
Biden had been under intense pressure to waive protections for vaccine manufacturers, especially amid criticism that rich nations were hoarding shots.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organization (WHO), called the US decision ‘historic’ and said it marked ‘a monumental moment in the fight against Covid-19.”
Tai cautioned however that negotiations ‘will take time given the consensus-based nature’ of the WTO.
With supplies for Americans secured, the Biden administration will continue efforts ‘to expand vaccine manufacturing and distribution’, and will work to ‘increase the raw materials needed to produce those vaccines.’
For months the WTO has been facing calls to temporarily remove the intellectual property protections on Covid-19 vaccines, known as a TRIPS waiver in reference to the agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property.
But that notion has been fiercely opposed by pharmaceutical giants and their host countries, which insist the patents are not the main roadblocks to scaling up production, and warned the move could hamper innovation.
“A waiver is the simple but the wrong answer to what is a complex problem,” the Geneva-based International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations lobby group said, describing the US move as “disappointing.”
Biden backed a waiver during the 2020 presidential campaign in which he also promised to re-engage with the world after four years of contentious relations between former president Donald Trump and US allies.
The US and several other countries previously blocked negotiations at the WTO about a proposal led by India and South Africa to waive protections for some patents and technology and boost vaccine production in developing countries.