‘Monumental moment’: US backs COVID vaccine patent waivers

World Health Organization chief welcomes US announcement that it will support waivers for coronavirus vaccines.

A young journalist gets vaccinated against coronavirus at the press club in Gauhati, India [File: Anupam Nath/AP Photo]

The head of the World Health Organization (WHO) has welcomed a decision by the United States to back intellectual property waivers for coronavirus vaccines, calling it “a monumental moment” in the fight against the virus.

WHO Executive Director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Wednesday commended the Biden administration’s support for temporarily waiving intellectual property rights as an example of “leadership to address global health challenges”.

“Now let’s all move together swiftly, in solidarity, building on the ingenuity & commitment of scientists who produced life-saving #COVID19 vaccines,” Tedros tweeted.

On Wednesday, US Trade Representative Katherine Tai said that while intellectual property rights for businesses are important, the US “supports the waiver of those protections” for COVID-19 vaccine in order to end the pandemic.

“This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures,” she said in a statement.

US President Joe Biden had been under increased pressure to back a World Trade Organization (WTO) proposal to waive the patents, a move that would allow more countries to manufacture much-needed COVID-19 jabs, in the face of growing calls to do more to support global vaccine equity and share the country’s vaccine supply with other hard-hit nations.

In her statement, Tai said Washington would engage in negotiations with the WTO on the waivers. “Those negotiations will take time given the consensus-based nature of the institution and the complexity of the issues involved,” she said.

Dozens of countries, as well as human rights groups, former world leaders and public health experts, have ramped up their calls for the patent waiver in recent weeks amid a COVID-19 surge in several countries.

Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF), one of the groups calling for the waiver, applauded what it said was a “bold” decision during a time of “unprecedented global need”, and said the waiver should be broadly applied.

“It is crucial that this waiver not just apply to preventative vaccines, but it should also cover other medical tools for COVID-19, including treatments for people who fall ill and diagnostics to help curb the spread, as originally proposed seven months ago,” Avril Benoit, executive director of MSF-USA said in a statement.

Al Jazeera’s Mike Hanna, reporting from Washington, DC, said Biden faced pressure from members of his own Democratic Party to back patent waivers for the vaccines.

“It is something that President Biden had promised during his campaign,” Hanna said. “However, since he’s come to office, there has been a great deal of pressure as well on the other side, from many pharmaceutical companies, not to carry through this waiver.”

He added that the WTO, which operates on the basis of consensus, must now get together to negotiate a text that all the member countries would have to agree to.

“Obviously, there’s a lot of work … before this becomes a reality. But the Biden administration decision is something that gives this immense momentum,” Hanna said.

Global call for waivers

In October of last year, South Africa and India submitted a request to the WTO to waive intellectual property rights on vaccines and other medical technologies needed to combat the coronavirus. More than 100 other countries have since supported that call.

“Given this present context of global emergency, it is important for WTO Members to work together to ensure that intellectual property rights such as patents, industrial designs, copyright and protection of undisclosed information do not create barriers to the timely access to affordable medical products,” the October letter read.

The demand for waivers has grown in urgency as several countries, including India, are dealing with devastating COVID-19 surges that have brought their health systems to the brink of collapse.

In April, MSF called on wealthy nations “to stand on the right side of history and join hands with those in support” of the patent waiver.

After the US announcement, it said that countries that continue to oppose the WTO waiver, including the United Kingdom, members of the European Union and Japan should also take action and “decide to put people’s health before pharmaceutical profits”.

Early on Thursday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the European Union is willing “to discuss any proposals that addresses the crisis in an effective and pragmatic manner”.

“That’s why we are ready to discuss how the US proposal for a waiver on intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines could help achieve that objective,” she said in a speech to the European University Institute in Florence.

For its part, the Africa Union’s health watchdog praised the US decision as a “remarkable expression of leadership”.

“History will remember the move taken by the US government as doing the right thing at the right time to fight a terrible challenge which is unprecedented in our contemporary history,” John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, told a news conference.

The International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA), however, said waiving patents on COVID-19 vaccines was “the wrong answer” to a complex problem and called for more technology transfer agreements, the Reuters news agency reported.

“Waiving patents of COVID-19 vaccines will not increase production nor provide practical solutions needed to battle this global health crisis. On the contrary, it is likely to lead to disruption,” the IFPMA, which represents research-based pharmaceutical companies, said in a statement.

Others welcomed the Biden administration’s move, with British Labour Party MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy calling on the UK government “to get behind an IP waiver to speed up vaccine rollout in low-income countries and limit the chance of new variants emerging”.

South Africa and India submitted a request to the WTO to waive intellectual property rights on COVID-19 vaccines and other medical technologies in October last year [File: Eric Gaillard/Reuters]

Julie Fischer, an associate research professor at Georgetown University Medical Center, says at the current rate of vaccine distribution, it is going to take most lower-income countries about two years to get most adults inoculated against COVID-19.

“The question is whether the waiving of these intellectual property rights would address this as quickly as everyone would like to see,” Fischer told Al Jazeera.

She explained that countries with the ability to manufacture the vaccines would also need manufacturing facilities, access to raw materials, and the expertise needed to manufacture doses safely in a short time.

“There is an opportunity to see what we could do to ramp up current vaccine manufacturing capability more effectively and to share doses more equitably from high-income countries to low-income countries, including through the COVAX facility,” Fischer added, referring to the WHO vaccine distribution programme.

Source: Al Jazeera