US backs waiving intellectual property rules on vaccines
The WTO's General Council took up the issue of a temporary waiver for intellectual property protections on COVID-19 vaccines and other tools.
The Biden administration on May 5 joined calls for more sharing of the technology behind COVID-19 vaccines to help speed the end of the pandemic, a shift that puts the U.S. alongside many in the developing world who want rich countries to do more to get doses to the needy.
United States Trade Representative Katherine Tai announced the government’s position, amid World Trade Organization talks about a possible temporary waiver of its protections that would allow more manufacturers to produce the life-saving vaccines.
“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,” Tai said in a statement.
She cautioned that it would take time to reach the required global “consensus” to waive the protections under WTO rules, and U.S. officials said it would not have an immediate effect on the global supply of COVID-19 shots.
Tai’s announcement came hours after WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala spoke to a closed-door meeting of ambassadors from developing and developed countries that have been wrangling over the issue, but agree on the need for wider access to COVID-19 treatments.
The WTO’s General Council took up the issue of a temporary waiver for intellectual property protections on COVID-19 vaccines and other tools, which South Africa and India first proposed in October. The idea has gained support among some progressive lawmakers in the West.
More than 100 countries have come out in support of the proposal, and a group of 110 members of Congress — all fellow Democrats of Biden — sent him a letter last month that called on him to support the waiver.
In the House of Commons on May 5, Health Minister Patty Hajdu was asked during an emergency debate on Alberta’s skyrocketing COVID-19 infection rate if Canada support’s Biden’s decision.
“The minister of international trade and I exchanged some texts actually when that happened and my understanding is that Canada is moving forward to support that,” she said.
International Trade Minister Mary Ng said the government is looking forward to working with the United States “to ensure a just and speedy global recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Shares of Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson — huge companies with many lucrative products — fell less than 1% on the news. But Moderna, whose vaccine is the company’s only product, fell 6.2% in late-afternoon trading before gaining back two-thirds of a per cent in after-hours trading.
It remained unclear how some countries in Europe, which have influential pharmaceutical industries and had previously shared U.S. reservations about the waiver, would respond.
Michael Yee, a Jefferies Group biotech analyst, wrote to investors that the key access issues for developing countries aren’t patents or price, but an inadequate supply of the materials needed and the know-how to produce the vaccines and keep quality high — which one of Johnson & Johnson’s contract manufacturers in the U.S. failed to do, ruining millions of doses.
“Manufacturing supplies, raw materials, vials, stoppers, and other key materials are in limited supply for 2021,” and may still be next year and beyond, Yee wrote. That’s partly because it takes time to make all those components, and Moderna and Pfizer have commitments to buy them “from major suppliers in huge bulk over the foreseeable future.”
He added that Pfizer previously sought authorization to sell its vaccine to India, which rejected its application and asked that additional studies be run. The U.S., European Union and many other countries have given that emergency authorization.