The Administration of President Joe Biden announced this Wednesday that it will support in the World Trade Organization (WTO) the temporary suspension of patents for vaccines against the coronavirus for the duration of the pandemic. The announcement, which can be described as historic, comes as the situation in India reminds the most developed states that until the coronavirus is defeated worldwide, no one will be totally safe from the risk of new variants emerging,
The intellectual property exemption will allow the poorest countries to manufacture the doses on their territories. “This is a global health crisis and the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic require extraordinary measures,” the US Foreign Trade representative, Katherine Tai, said in a statement.
The announcement overturns a situation that dates back to last October, when India and South Africa applied to the WTO to release patents. Until now, the United States and the European Union had been one of the main opponents of a proposal by the World Trade Organization (WTO) to lift intellectual property protections with the aim of increasing vaccine production. However, the pressure on Biden was mounting. With more than half of the American adult population vaccinated, various international bodies and even members of his own party advocated for him to support the proposal.
“The Administration strongly believes in intellectual property protections, but in the service of ending this pandemic, it supports the exemption of those protections for covid-19 vaccines,” Ambassador Tai says in a statement, announcing that Washington will actively participate in the negotiations at the World Trade Organization “to make this happen.” The Trade representative adds that the Democratic Administration will continue to work with the private sector and all possible partners “to expand the manufacture and distribution of vaccines.” It will also work to increase the raw materials needed to produce those vaccines. Tai has acknowledged that it would take time to reach the global “consensus” required to renounce protections under WTO rules.
The announcement came hours after the Director General of the WTO, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, held a private meeting with ambassadors from developed and developing countries to address the issue. “The meeting was more constructive and pragmatic, with fewer accusations and more messages of solidarity towards India,” WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell said at a press conference on Wednesday. Rockwell added that an organization’s panel on vaccine patents was ready to address the exemptions proposal at a “tentative” meeting scheduled for later this month, before the WTO General Council, set for August 8. June 9.
In recent months, India and South Africa have succeeded in getting 60 other governments –the majority among the lowest income of the globe– become sponsors of patent releases. In total, more than 100 countries supported the first proposal presented in October by India and South Africa at the WTO. India and South Africa announced that they will present a new proposal to the WTO this May, with the aim of releasing the patents of vaccines, medicines and health products necessary to face the pandemic. The initiative tries to buy time to bring positions closer to the governments that continue to oppose the measure, while seeking to add new forces to the growing and unprecedented support it has received in recent weeks.
The defenders of the measure assure that the exemption would allow “to increase the world production” of vaccines, as well as to distribute them better around the world. Critics, according to WTO discussion papers, call it “counterproductive”. They are skeptical about its feasibility and criticize it for “putting innovation at risk” and the “collaborative efforts” put in place by the pharmaceutical industry to satisfy the demand for vaccines based on agreements between companies.
So far the largest common effort is COVAX, the initiative led by WHO, United Nations and the Alliance for Vaccines (GAVI) created to guarantee access to the vaccine in developing countries. To date, it has distributed nearly 50 million vaccines in some 120 countries. Deliveries are a long way from the 2 billion doses that the program set as a target to distribute before the end of 2021, 80% of them to countries with the greatest economic difficulties.
The pandemic has claimed 3.2 million lives to date and infected more than 437 million people.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.