US considering intellectual property waiver for COVID vaccines

The White House said officials were reviewing the most efficient way to maximise the global output of vaccines.

US has said it is considering lifting intellectual property restrictions on vaccines [File: John Thys/Reuters]

The United States is considering options for maximising global production and supply of COVID-19 vaccines at the lowest cost, including backing a proposed waiver of intellectual property (IP) rights, but no decision has been made, according to the White House.

The announcement comes as the US and other Western countries have begun providing aid and lifting export controls on medical equipment and vaccine raw materials amid pressure from countries where deaths and infections are surging, notably India.

On Wednesday, India surpassed 200,000 deaths from the virus, although the actual count is expected to be much higher.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said “there are a lot of different ways” to maximise the global production of vaccines.

“Right now, that’s one of the ways, but we have to assess what makes the most sense,” Psaki told reporters on Tuesday, referring to the IP rights waivers.

World Health Organization officials, former world leaders, and aid groups have also called on the US and other countries to waive IP rules that could allow countries with the manufacturing capacity to quickly scale up production.

Psaki said officials in Washington, DC were studying whether it would be more effective to boost existing manufacturing of the vaccines in the US. She added US Trade Representative Katherine Tai had not made a recommendation on the issue, and President Joe Biden had not made a decision.

Western countries block negotiations at WTO

The US and several other countries have thus far blocked negotiations at the World Trade Organization (WTO) about a proposal led by India and South Africa that would waive the IP rights of pharmaceutical companies to allow developing countries to produce COVID-19 vaccines.

Proponents are pushing Washington to change course before another WTO meeting on the issue on April 30.

Critics say waiving the WTO’s agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property could reduce the safety of vaccines, and that setting up production in new places would sap resources needed to boost production in existing locations.

Tai discussed the issue on Monday with drugmakers Pfizer and AstraZeneca PLC, noting her interest in a solution that gave developing countries a role in addressing critical gaps in vaccine production and distribution.

US industry executives believe Tai may be leaning towards backing the waiver after she called the gaping divide between developed and developing countries’ access to medicines “completely unacceptable” and said the industry needed to make sacrifices in times of crisis.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies