In an effort to close the horrific vaccine disparity between wealthy countries and the developing world, the Biden administration announced that it supports waiving intellectual-property protections for coronavirus vaccines.
“This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures,” wrote United States Trade Representative Katherine Tai in a statement. “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.”
The announcement comes as leading nations from the World Trade Organization have pushed members to come to an agreement on how to lift protections on the intellectual property behind the coronavirus vaccine candidates. A temporary suspension of these protections would make it easier for developing nations to produce their own vaccines, rather than be forced to wait in line behind wealthy nations to purchase them. While the U.S. has provided India — which is facing hundreds of thousands of coronavirus cases every day — with vaccine materials and around 60 million doses over the past few weeks, the decision to support the IP suspension is the largest signal to date of American cooperation in the global vaccination effort. Leaders from South Africa and India, as well as many Democrats in Congress, have lobbied the Biden administration to support such a waiver.
To help get the agreement over the line at the World Trade Organization, the U.S. will now be part of the negotiations over its text, and will pressure other countries to back it. Because the WTO makes its decisions by consensus, all 164 member nations must agree on the measure. “In terms of how soon the WTO can deliver — that literally depends on the WTO members, collectively, being able to deliver, and so I am the first one to admit that what we are leaning into is a process that is not going to be easy,” Tai added. Activists and epidemiologists who have pushed for such an action are also encouraging the WTO to include a process known as tech transfer, in which “patent holders supply technical know-how and personnel,” as the New York Times explains.
On the news that many countries could soon make doses locally, the shares of several companies producing the vaccine fell sharply: Moderna dropped close to 10 points, Germany’s BioNTech fell as much as 8.9 percent, and Novovax fell as much as 11 percent.