President Joe Biden threw his support behind a World Trade Organization proposal on Wednesday to waive patent protections for COVID-19 vaccines.
“This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures,” U.S. trade representative Katherine Tai said 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.”
These extraordinary times and circumstances of call for extraordinary measures.
The US supports the waiver of IP protections on COVID-19 vaccines to help end the pandemic and we’ll actively participate in @WTO negotiations to make that happen. pic.twitter.com/96ERlboZS8
— Ambassador Katherine Tai (@AmbassadorTai) May 5, 2021
Biden’s move is clearing a hurdle for vaccine-strapped countries to manufacture their own vaccines even though the patents are privately held.
His decision comes amid a devastating outbreak in India, which accounted for 46% of the new COVID-19 cases recorded worldwide last week, and signs that the outbreak is spreading to Nepal, Sri Lanka and other neighbors.
India and South Africa were the leading voices in a group of about 60 countries which for the last six months has been trying to get the patents on vaccines set aside.
However, they met with strong opposition from the previous US administration of Donald Trump, the UK and the EU.
But Trump’s successor as US President, Joe Biden, has taken a different tack. He backed a waiver during the 2020 presidential campaign and reiterated his support on Wednesday.
The head of the World Health Organization (WHO) called the move a “monumental moment” in the fight against Covid-19.
“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,” he said.
Pharmaceutical companies against vaccine patent waiver
Pharmaceutical companies working on vaccines have reported sharp revenue and profit gains during the crisis.
The industry’s biggest lobby group warned that Biden’s unprecedented step would undermine the companies’ response to the pandemic and compromise safety.
“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,” a statement from Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America reads.
“This decision will sow confusion between public and private partners, further weaken already strained supply chains and foster the proliferation of counterfeit vaccines.”
The trade group added that the decision will compromise U.S. job creation and the country’s place as a leader in biomedical innovation.
Vaccine distribution in the US according to demand
In another radical move, the White House announced on Tuesday that it would henceforth redistribute coronavirus vaccines not according to population but according to demand, marking a seismic shift in how the precious doses are allocated to each state.
The move comes as officials realized some states were not ordering all the vaccines to which they were entitled, while other states received less than they desired and could use.