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World

US backs plan to waive Covid-19 vaccine patents

  • But that notion has been fiercely opposed by pharmaceutical giants and their host countries, which insist the patents are not the main roadblocks to scaling up production, and warned the move could hamper innovation.
06 May 2021

WASHINGTON: US President Joe Biden's administration on Wednesday announced support for a global waiver on patent protections for Covid-19 vaccines, offering hope to poor nations that have struggled to access the life-saving doses.

India, where the death toll hit a new daily record amid fears the peak is still to come, has been leading the fight within the World Trade Organization (WTO) to allow more drugmakers to manufacture the vaccines -- a move pharma giants opposed.

US Trade Representative Katherine Tai said that while intellectual property rights for businesses are important, Washington "supports the waiver of those protections for COVID-19 vaccines" 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.

Biden had been under intense pressure to waive protections for vaccine manufacturers, especially amid criticism that rich nations were hoarding Covid-19 vaccines.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organization (WHO), called the US decision "historic" and marked "a monumental moment in the fight against COVID19."

Tai cautioned said that negotiations "will take time given the consensus-based nature" of the WTO.

The aim "is to get as many safe and effective vaccines to as many people as fast as possible," she said.

With supplies for Americans secured, the Biden administration will continue efforts "to expand vaccine manufacturing and distribution," and will work to "increase the raw materials needed to produce those vaccines."

For months the WTO has been facing calls to temporarily remove the intellectual property protections on Covid-19 vaccines, known as a TRIPS waiver in reference to the agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property.

WTO chief Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala on Wednesday described as the "moral and economic issue of our time."

But that notion has been fiercely opposed by pharmaceutical giants and their host countries, which insist the patents are not the main roadblocks to scaling up production, and warned the move could hamper innovation.

"A waiver is the simple but the wrong answer to what is a complex problem," the Geneva-based International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations lobby group said, describing the US move as "disappointing."

Tai in recent weeks has met with executives from all the major US vaccine producers -- Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson -- to discuss the issue.

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