Yesterday the Biden-Harris Administration announced its support for waiving intellectual property protections on COVID-19 vaccines: saying it will actively participate in negotiations at the World Trade Organization to make this happen.
“Those negotiations will take time given the consensus-based nature of the institution and the complexity of the issues involved," said a statement from US trade representative, Katherine Tai.
“The Administration’s aim is to get as many safe and effective vaccines to as many people as fast as possible. 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.”
A proposal for waivers on certain parts of the 'TRIPS Agreement' would cover vaccines and their manufacture and supply. It was initially submitted by South Africa and India and has since been co-sponsored by more than 60 WTO members. The US backing puts increased force behind the proposal.
Advocates of a waiver say the move would increase global vaccine production. While vaccination campaigns in the US and some other developed countries have moved forward in leaps and bounds, there is a stark gap with poorer countries with some of these yet to report a single dose.
But the US pharmaceutical industry says a waiver on IP will do nothing to address the real challenges of getting vaccines to people: adding it could in fact hinder efforts.
Responding to the US government's decision to support the waiver yesterday, Stephen J Ubl, president and CEO of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), said: “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. This decision will sow confusion between public and private partners, further weaken already strained supply chains and foster the proliferation of counterfeit vaccines.
“This change in longstanding American policy will not save lives. It also flies in the face of President Biden’s stated policy of building up American infrastructure and creating jobs by handing over American innovations to countries looking to undermine our leadership in biomedical discovery. This decision does nothing to address the real challenges to getting more shots in arms, including last-mile distribution and limited availability of raw materials. These are the real challenges we face that this empty promise ignores.
“Biopharmaceutical manufacturers are fully committed to providing global access to COVID-19 vaccines, and they are collaborating at a scale that was previously unimaginable, including more than 200 manufacturing and other partnerships to date.”
D. Michelle McMurry-Heath, president and CEO of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), said the group was ‘extremely disappointed’ in the decision.
"Handing needy countries a recipe book without the ingredients, safeguards, and sizable workforce needed will not help people waiting for the vaccine. 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. The better alternative would have been to follow through on the President’s pledge just last week to make the US the world’s “arsenal of vaccines”. This policy leads in the opposite direction.
"The US has unfortunately chosen to set a dangerous precedent with these actions. But how we negotiate with the WTO moving forward will be critical in mitigating this myopic decision and its effects on patients around the world."