The Biden administration announced its support for waiving intellectual property (IP) restrictions for COVID-19 vaccines after months of lobbying by humanitarian and public health advocates, according to the New York Times.
Existing IP rules mean that certain companies hold exclusive rights to the production and distribution of leading COVID-19 vaccines. Hoarding vaccine knowledge in this way, advocates argue, has hampered global vaccination drives and vaccine equity, and undermines efforts to overcome the pandemic.
The current rollout of vaccines worldwide has been marked by extreme inequality. The vast majority of vaccines administered to date have occurred in wealthy countries, while many low-income countries have been told they may not receive adequate supplies until 2024.
“This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures,” Katherine Tai, the United States trade representative, said in a statement on Wednesday, the Times reported. “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.”
Hundreds of health care, humanitarian, and civil society groups signed an open letter calling on governments to support the waiver of the World Trade Organization (WTO)’s IP rules under the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement for COVID-19 vaccines.
“In a global pandemic where every country is affected, we need a global solution,” the groups wrote in the letter. “Adoption of a waiver at the WTO level ... enables an expedited, open, and automatic global solution to allow uninterrupted collaboration in development, production, and supply, and to collectively address the global challenge facing all countries. It’s time for governments to take collective responsibility and put people’s lives before corporate monopolies.”
The US had previously been the most powerful country opposing this waiver, but the Biden administration’s reversal signals a significant shift in public opinion. Advocates say US support could help sway other countries that have opposed the waiver, such as the EU, UK, Japan, Switzerland, Brazil, and Norway, according to Bloomberg.
Advocates for the waiver argue that making COVID-19 vaccine knowledge available will allow countries to scale up manufacturing capacity. However, they insist that companies such as Pfizer and Moderna must also share production and technology know-how — which is typically closely guarded information — to ensure vaccine production is consistent worldwide.
Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, commended the US on its announcement Wednesday.
“This is a monumental moment in the fight against COVID-19. The commitment by the President of the United States Joe Biden and Ambassador Katherine Tai, the US Trade Representative, to support the waiver of IP protections on vaccines is a powerful example of American leadership to address global health challenges,” he said in a statement.
“I commend the United States on its historic decision for vaccine equity and prioritizing the well-being of all people everywhere at a critical time. Now let's all move together swiftly, in solidarity, building on the ingenuity and commitment of scientists who produced life-saving COVID-19 vaccines.”
The waiver on IP restrictions for COVID-19 vaccines — which was first proposed in October 2020 by South Africa and India, where devastating COVID-19 outbreaks are ongoing — will require backing from all 164 members of the WTO.
Representatives from South Africa and India agreed at a WTO meeting on Wednesday to revise the proposal for another meeting currently scheduled for later in May, Bloomberg reported.