US to back patent waivers on Covid vaccine

Washington: The Biden administration on Tuesday announced it will support waiver of intellectual property protection on Covid-19 vaccines to help end the global coronavirus pandemic, citing “extraordinary times and circumstances call for extraordinary measures”.

US Trade Representative Katherine Tai made the announcement after pressure from developing countries and liberal and progressive lawmakers in the US while disclosing that Washington will actively participate in WTO negotiations to make that happen.

India and South Africa were among the lead countries that had campaigned for the IP waiver. More than 100 US lawmakers had written to President Biden supporting the demand even though an equal number, many bankrolled by the pharma lobby, had opposed it.

“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,” Tai said in a statement.

The Biden administration’s backing for talks on Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) flexibility for vaccines at WTO has prodded others such as the European Union, a key opponent, out of its waiver hesitancy, but trade negotiators are treading with caution.

“The EU is also ready to discuss any proposal that addresses the crisis in an effective and pragmatic manner,” European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said Thursday.

“And that’s why we are ready to discuss how the US proposal for waiver on intellectual property protection for covered vaccines could help achieve that objective,” she told an online conference, weeks after the trading bloc had told WTO members that this was a no-go area.

The Indian government appeared pleased with the progress after months of deadlock. “We welcome the US government supporting this initiative and joining 120 other countries working towards affordable Covid-19 vaccines,” commerce and industry minister Piyush Goyal said on Twitter.

For now, Indian negotiators are keeping their fingers crossed, waiting to see how the other traditional naysayers – Switzerland, the UK, Japan, Canada and Brazil – react, and acknowledge that the statements from the US and the EU only signal a start of some tough negotiations in Geneva over the coming weeks.

Significantly, the dilution of US’ traditional resistance, following intense pressure from civil society, was limited to talks on vaccines, while India and South Africa’s joint proposal at WTO had sought to extend the flexibility to Covid-19 related medicines as well.

Image courtesy of (Photo courtesy Reuters)

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