US weighs appeal to accelerate global access to COVID vaccines
THE BIDEN administration is weighing an appeal from progressive Democrats to accelerate global access to COVID-19 vaccines by supporting a waiver of intellectual-property protections, a move opposed by big drug makers.
Lawmakers led by senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren last week called on President Joseph R. Biden to back a proposal before the World Trade Organization (WTO) that seeks a broad waiver from obligations on the protection of intellectual property rights, including patents, copyrights and trade secrets.
The aim is to ease rules regarding the production and export of vaccines and other critical medical goods needed to combat the COVID -19 virus.
The lawmakers and allies including labor unions argue that supporting the plan — backed by South Africa, India, and more than 50 other countries — would save lives. The Trump administration blocked the proposal, first put forward in October. Failing to act on it would put drug company profits ahead of people, advocates say.
US Trade Representative (USTR) Katherine Tai has indicated that the status quo isn’t an option, without committing to change or maintain the country’s stance at the WTO.
In separate virtual meetings on April 13 with drug makers and waiver-seeking groups, she said the administration wants to increase the production and distribution of vaccines. The next day at a WTO meeting, Ms. Tai said inequality in vaccine access is totally unacceptable and that the market has failed in meeting the health needs of developing countries, calling on nations to consider whether changes to the group’s rules might be needed.
The US isn’t the only country that has opposed a waiver; the European Union (EU), UK, Japan, Switzerland, Brazil and Norway also have resisted the push. The WTO is a consensusbased organization, meaning an objection from any one member can stop action. But waiver supporters argue that US leadership on the issue could help to sway other holdouts.
“The waiver is critical to be able to increase global production of vaccines and treatments as soon as possible,” said Lori Wallach, director of the Global Trade Watch at Public Citizen, one of the groups lobbying for the measure.
Nations already have the power to issue compulsory licenses — allowing them to make the vaccine without the patent holder’s permission, for a fee — for homegrown manufacturing.
But the proposal would let countries obtain know-how and negotiate deals to produce vaccines invented elsewhere without facing trade blowback from the US and EU, where most of the drug makers are based.
Business groups say the waiver plan is ineffective. They argue that few countries have the capacity to produce more vaccines even if they knew the formulas. Also, there’s limited global supply of the materials needed, and building new factories with the necessary technology to produce the vaccines could take years, they say.
The move also could weaken a priority of decades of US trade negotiations: strong protection for intellectual property, which drug makers and other industries say helps maintain the US technological lead.
While the US government contributed funding for COVID-19 vaccines and helped develop some of the foundational technology, companies had already been investing in developing the mRNA technology in Moderna, Inc. and Pfizer, Inc.’s vaccines for years beforehand.
Of the shots administered globally so far, 39% have gone to people in 27 wealthy nations that represent 11% of the world population. Countries making up the least-wealthy 11% have gotten about 2% of inoculations, according to an analysis of data in the Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker.
“The top priority of the United States is saving lives and ending the pandemic in the United States and around the world,” Adam Hodge, a USTR spokesman, said in response to a Bloomberg News inquiry about the US position on the waiver. “Along with our investments in Covax, we are working with our global partners to explore pragmatic and effective steps to surge the production and equitable distribution of vaccines.”
The pharmaceutical companies say they are working to expand global capacity already, and argue that the fastest way for the US to help developing countries is by giving them the stockpile of vaccines it already has, like tens of millions of doses of the jab developed by AstraZeneca Plc, which hasn’t been approved for US use.
Wealthy countries “are stockpiling or blocking the shipment of vaccine doses, impeding their global distribution, and choosing to vaccinate their low-risk populations before focusing on higherrisk patients abroad,” Michelle McMurry-Heath, president of the industry group Biotechnology Innovation Organization, or BIO, said in a letter to Ms. Tai this week. —