Bucking the pharma industry on the closely watched issue of patent rights for COVID-19 vaccines, the Biden administration came out in favor of a proposal at the World Trade Organization to suspend intellectual property protections for pandemic shots.
In a statement Wednesday, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai said the “extraordinary circumstances” of the pandemic call for “extraordinary measures.” The administration supports intellectual property protections generally, she said, but “in service of ending this pandemic,” it also supports “the waiver of those protections for COVID-19 vaccines.”
The news drew a swift rebuke from Stephen Ubl, head of the top industry lobbying group PhRMA, who called the move an “unprecedented step that will undermine our global response to the pandemic and compromise safety.” The decision “does nothing to address the real challenges to getting more shots in arms, including last-mile distribution and limited availability of raw materials,” he added.
While the pharma industry opposed the move, Oxfam and other groups lauded the decision. In a statement, Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch director Lori Wallach thanked the president and Tai for “prioritizing saving human lives and livelihoods” in the fight against the pandemic.
COVID-19 vaccines have been deployed around the world in an impressive fashion in recent months, but while the U.S. now has an excess, India and other countries face dire shortages. The proposal is aimed at allowing local drug manufacturers around the world to produce proven vaccines.
Critics argue it won’t fulfill its intended goal. Since existing COVID-19 vaccine producers have spent countless hours learning and improving their production procedures, critics say the manufacturing should be left to them. The waiver could also worsen raw material shortages, they’ve said.
While the U.S. is certainly an important backer for the proposal, the waiver is not final until the WTO reaches a consensus on the issue.