U.S. Throws its Support Behind Move to Waive Vaccine Patents


COVID-19 Drugs and Vaccines Are Coming—But to Whom?

On Wednesday, May 5 the Biden administration announced its support of a proposal in the World Trade Organization (WTO) to temporarily lift patent restrictions for coronavirus vaccines. With global case numbers continuing to rise, we have seen an emergence of new variants in the coronavirus, some of which have made the virus more contagious and more deadly. These new variants are causing huge surges in large, lower income countries like India and Brazil, increasing support for the idea of opening up vaccine production to companies that will be able to provide these impacted countries with vaccines.

The waiver would temporarily lift the patents on vaccines from companies like Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson and Johnson, allowing companies across the globe to access the information on how to create vaccines. The proposal was introduced to the WTO six months ago by India and South Africa and has since gained the avid support of over sixty countries campaigning for the waiver. 

Doctors Without Borders said that the implementation of the waiver would, “increase sufficient and timely access to these lifesaving medical tools as Covid-19 continues to ravage countries across the globe. Lower income countries only received 0.3 percent of global Covid-19 vaccine supply while the US has secured enough doses to protect its entire population.” Lower income countries continue to have very low vaccination rates because they cannot afford to compete with higher income countries like the United States and countries in Europe for supply of vaccines. Supporters of the waiver say that it would help address this issue because it would allow for local manufacturers to begin producing their own vaccines. 

In response to this, 100 of the 164 member states of the WTO have agreed to support the waiver. However, in order to make any changes to international intellectual property laws, it must be done in a unanimous decision by all WTO members. People like Katherine Tai, the US Trade Representative, believe that the US will bring much power to the negotiating table and this can be seen in how Australia quickly vowed their support to the waiver hours after the US did, but much of Europe is still resisting.

Germany, which provided funds to BioNTech to help create the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, has publicly declared its opposition to the waiver. French and Spanish leaders have followed suit, claiming that if the US wants to help address global vaccination, it should focus on exporting the vaccines it produces.

Other issues that have come up  within the pharmaceutical industry in regards to the waiver is whether it would be unfair to companies like Pfizer and Moderna that worked hard to pioneer coronavirus vaccines and the idea that allowing free access to the patented information may allow numerous under regulated third party companies to begin producing vaccines that are not safe. Additionally, the issue that the waiver would cause competition for the natural resources needed to create vaccines with Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla commenting, “Entities with little or no experience in manufacturing vaccines are likely to chase the very raw materials we require to scale our production, putting the safety and security of all at risk.:

The issue of the waiver is evidently still hotly contested and it remains to be seen whether US support will actually be able to drive the proposal through.

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