The US has declared its support for a patent waiver on Covid-19 vaccines to boost their production and distribution around the world.
The waiver will not take place immediately as it has to be approved by consensus at the World Trade Organization (WTO), but the decision of the Biden administration to throw its weight behind a waiver will have a strong influence on the outcome of that decision.
“This is a global health crisis,” Katherine Tai, the US trade representative, said in a written statement. “The extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures.
“The administration strongly believes in intellectual property protections, but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for Covid-19 vaccines. We will actively participate in text-based negotiations at the WTO needed to make that happen.”
The announcement was quickly welcomed by the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who described it as a “monumental moment in the fight against Covid-19” and a “powerful example of American leadership to address global health challenges”.
“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.
The decision was announced during a two-day WTO meeting. India and South Africa have been backing a waiver proposal since October, with the support of about 100 emerging economies, but wealthy countries have been blocking a debate on the issue at the WTO’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (Trips) council.
There is still resistance to a patent waiver in the European Union and Switzerland. A meeting of G7 foreign ministers in London failed to agree on a common position on the issue. A G7 action plan called for greater funding for a UN-administered distribution scheme, Covax, and for voluntary licensing and technology transfer agreements.
Opponents of the waiver within the administration had argued it was not the main bottleneck on production and distribution and that its approval could have a chilling effect on incentives for pharmaceutical companies to produce rapid vaccines in the future. Proponents argued it was an essential move towards greater equity in vaccine distribution and a test of US leadership under Joe Biden’s leadership.
At present, one in four people in rich countries have received at least one vaccine dose. In low-income nations, the ratio is about one in 500 people. “Adoption of this waiver is critical to disseminate vaccine technology to middle-income and low-income nations, so that all people around the world can get access to vaccines and treatment, as quickly as possible,” Paul O’Brien, the executive director of Amnesty International USA, said.
“By reversing the prior administration’s position, President Biden has made clear that the US prioritises people’s lives over pharmaceutical company profits.”