In a shock move, Joe Biden’s administration looks set to support a waiver on intellectual property (IP) protections for COVID-19 vaccines.
The decision – which comes amid worrying situations in India and other counties and increasing concern that vaccine-resistant strains of COVID could undermine a global recovery – has been backed by more than 100 countries as well as Democratic lawmakers at home in the US. However, it comes as a blow to a pharmaceutical industry that recently restated its commitment to IP via a new set of ten principles.
US Trade Representative Katherine Tai, who backed negotiations at the World Trade Organisation (WTO), said in a statement that “This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures.” She added that Wednesday’s decision was made “in service of ending this pandemic” but cautioned that deliberations “will take time given the consensus-based nature of the institution and the complexity of the issues involved.”
This decision will sow confusion between public and private partners, further weaken already strained supply chains and foster the proliferation of counterfeit vaccines
Stephen Ubl, PhRMA
Having initially blocked WTO negotiations on the India and South Africa-led proposal, the USA’s about-turn on this polarising issue has received harsh criticism from the pharma industry. Pharma lobby groups have pointed out that 200 technology transfer agreements to expand delivery of COVID-19 vaccines already exist, a sign the current system is working. Other arguments include new manufacturing lines detracting from efforts to boost production at existing sites as well as health and safety concerns.
As quoted in Endpoints, Michelle McMurry-Heath of lobby group BIO, said, “Handing needy countries a recipe book without the ingredients, safeguards, and sizable workforce needed will not help people waiting for the vaccine. Handing them the blueprint to construct a kitchen that – in optimal conditions – can take a year to build will not help us stop the emergence of dangerous new COVID variants.” PhRMA’s Stephen Ubl noted, “This decision will sow confusion between public and private partners, further weaken already strained supply chains and foster the proliferation of counterfeit vaccines.”
Other stakeholders have been effusive in their praise for the decision. World Health Organization head, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, called Wednesday’s decision “a monumental moment in the fight against #COVID19” on Twitter, reflecting “the wisdom and moral leadership of the United States.”
US support does not guarantee that other previous opponents of the waiver such as the EU and UK will come on board, that the proposal will be adopted at all, nor – if it is – in what scope. However, Wednesday’s decision potentially signifies a turning point in global access to COVID-19 vaccines and to the pharma IP landscape more broadly.