The United States has announced the support for waiving intellectual property (IP) protection for Covid-19 vaccines. The decision is a breakthrough in India and South Africa's attempts to get World Trade Organisation (WTO) member countries to agree to such a waiver to fight the pandemic equitably.
On May 5, United States Trade Representative Katherine Tai stated that the Biden-Harris administration has decided to announce the support. "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," Tai said in a statement.
After the US support, European Union will be the only major trade bloc that continues to oppose the move at WTO. Tai has indicated the US administration will actively participate in text-based negotiations at the WTO needed to make that happen. "Those negotiations will take time given the consensus-based nature of the institution and the complexity of the issues involved," the statement said.
"The administration aims to get as many safe and effective vaccines to as many people as fast as possible. 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," Tai stated.
Incidentally, the US support for IP waiver is limited to Covid-19 vaccines, while the India-South Africa proposal is for such a waiver on all Covid-19 interventions, including therapeutics and diagnostics.
"One reason why the US will back a waiver on vaccines but not therapeutics or diagnostics is that vaccines in foreign markets protect us. Therapeutics, diagnostics in foreign markets, don't," says US-based James Love, director of KEI, a civil society organisation that is on the forefront of IP waiver demand.
Love, however, said it is time to focus on the positive. "Now that the US supports a TRIPS waiver, for vaccines, people can stop emphasising all of the things that won't be done and start focusing on what needs to be done. In this regard, it is a good time to brush up on the potential for the Biden administration to use the Defense Production Act to loosen up access to manufacturing know-how and access to working cell lines, and ask the WHO what are its procedures for evaluating the quality of generic/biosimilar vaccines," he said.