United States President Joe Biden’s administration, in a major decision on Wednesday, 5th May, said it would support easing patent rules on Covid-19 vaccines following months of intense internal debate and strong pushback from American drugmakers. It will potentially expand the global supply and narrow the vaccination gap between the rich and poor nations. The move is preliminary and will not guarantee that the global patent rules are lifted right away.
But the Biden administration’s signal of support amounts to a major step that aid groups and Democrats had been pressing for.
“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,” US Trade Representative Katherine Tai wrote in a statement.
President Biden and Tai had been weighing the issue after calls from global advocacy groups and progressives to support waivers on World Trade Organisation rules that had been proposed by India and South Africa. During his campaign, Biden promised to support such waivers but had been under pressure from pharmaceutical companies to keep them in place.
In the lead-up to Wednesday’s decision, administration officials led by Tai met with more than two dozen stakeholders in the vaccine patent debate, according to an official. That included trade partners, health experts and advocates, labour groups, and the major vaccine manufacturers. Once the information they gleaned was compiled, the department presented options to Biden, who ultimately decided to support the waiver in line with his campaign pledge
Officials were clear, however, that patent rules will not immediately be eased based on Wednesday’s decision. Members of the WTO must unanimously decide whether to loosen the restrictions. And while the US had been a holdout, other countries — including the European Union and Switzerland — have also resisted the step.
“The administration’s aim is to get as many safe and effective vaccines to as many people as fast as possible,” Tai said in her statement. “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,”
Still, some of President Biden’s advisers have continued to voice concern at throwing the global supply chain into flux at a time Americans are still getting shots. And others, including some health advisers, have downplayed the effect that easing patent rules would have on actually getting vaccines to the rest of the world, citing the specialised materials and technology needed to create the products.
On Sunday, Chief of Staff Ron Klain acknowledged that intellectual property rights were part of the problem of worldwide vaccine shortages, but that bigger issues lay in manufacturing.