WASHINGTON — The Biden administration announced Wednesday that it supports waiving intellectual property protections for Covid-19 vaccines, as countries struggle to manufacture the life-saving doses.
“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,” United States Trade Representative Katherine Tai wrote in a statement.
“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,” the statement added.
Stocks of major pharmaceutical companies that have produced vaccines, including Moderna, BioNTech and Pfizer, dropped sharply after news of the potential waivers first broke.
World Trade Organization leaders reportedly urged member nations this week to quickly hash out the details of an agreement to temporarily ease the rules protecting intellectual property behind coronavirus vaccines. The waiver, proposed by South Africa and India, could remove obstacles to ramping up the production of vaccines in developing countries.
WTO decisions are based on consensus, so all 164 members must agree.
President Joe Biden at the White House on Wednesday affirmed that the White House would back the World Trade Organization’s IP waiver proposal. “Yes, I’m going to talk about that later today. Yes,” Biden said shortly before Tai’s statement was released.
The Biden administration’s move comes as coronavirus infections surge to their highest levels in countries that have struggled to procure or distribute vaccines, highlighting a contrast with other nations, including the U.S., Canada and the U.K.
Edith Arangoitia, 46, (who came as a companion to her elderly mother) is vaccinated with the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine by Doctor Galen Harnden at La Colaborativa in Chelsea, Massachusetts on February 16, 2021.
Joseph Prezioso | AFP | Getty Images
In recent weeks, India has grappled with a staggering rise in new coronavirus infections. Over the weekend, India reported 400,000 daily cases, bringing the nation’s cumulative total to 20,665,148 cases, according to figures compiled by Johns Hopkins University. The spike may have been triggered by a highly contagious Covid variant, known as B.1.617, which was first identified in India.
The variant has since been identified in other countries, including the United States.
In April, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi discussed lifting the patent protections of the coronavirus vaccine with Biden, according to a readout of the call. The relaxation would grant governments quicker and more affordable access to the lifesaving doses.
Last week, the Biden administration announced that it will immediately make raw materials needed for India’s coronavirus vaccine production available.
Critics have argued that patents on vaccines and other protections are not the central obstacle to producing more vaccines for the nations that need them most. Some also suggest such agreements could harm companies’ incentives to innovate.
“This is a huge misstep by the Biden Administration that will do nothing to increase vaccine distribution and will endorse China’s ability to piggyback on U.S. innovation to further its vaccine diplomacy aims,” Clete Willems, a former attorney at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, said of the decision.
“A solution more in line with the Administration’s stated objectives of improving U.S. competitiveness and keeping jobs in America would be to produce and export vaccines from the United States,” said Willems, who worked under both the Obama and Trump administrations.
A Washington Post editorial this week said the goal of creating a “people’s vaccine” to defeat Covid is “more slogan than solution.”
— CNBC’s Kevin Breuninger and Tom Franck contributed to this report from New York.