The U.S. will support a proposal to waive intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines, joining an effort to increase global supply and access to the life-saving shots as the gap between rich and poor nations widens.
“We are for the waiver at the WTO, we are for what the proponents of the waiver are trying to accomplish, which is better access, more manufacturing capability, more shots in arms,” U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai said in an interview Wednesday.
The Biden administration will now actively take part in negotiations for the text of the waiver at the World Trade Organization and encourage other countries to back it, Tai said.
She acknowledged the talks will take time and “will not be easy,” given the complexity of the issue and the fact that the Geneva-based WTO is a member-driven organization that can only make decisions based on consensus.
“In terms of how soon the WTO can deliver — that literally depends on the WTO members, collectively, being able to deliver, and so I am the first one to admit that what we are leaning into is a process that is not going to be easy,” Tai said. She added that she sees energy from WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala “to take this opportunity and see what is the WTO capable of.”
India and South Africa, two nations struggling to contain fresh outbreaks of COVID-19, have been urging WTO members to temporarily suspend rules on IP rights, arguing that it would be the most efficient and equitable way to address vaccine shortages in poor countries.
The U.S. isn’t the only country that until now has withheld support for the waiver. The European Union, U.K., Japan, Switzerland, Brazil and Norway also have resisted the push. However, supporters of the waiver argue that U.S. leadership on the issue could help sway other holdouts. The timing for approval of the waiver depends on how soon member states can find agreement.
“Given what is at stake, this is the best chance for the WTO to be able to come together to deliver something that is going to help people and make a difference,” Tai said.
The move has been opposed by drugmakers, who say the waiver plan is ineffective. They argue that few countries have the capacity to produce more vaccines even if they knew the formulas. Also, there’s limited global supply of the materials needed, and building new factories with the necessary technology to produce the vaccines could take years, they say.
As the U.S. inoculations advanced and outbreaks diminished in recent weeks, the White House has come under pressure from progressive Democrats and public health advocates to take a stance after deliberating on the issue while India in particular suffers from surging deaths and infections.
As interagency discussions were ongoing, Tai also met with CEOs of all vaccine producing companies and held calls with members of Congress and other stakeholders in civil society and public health.
At a WTO meeting Wednesday, India and South Africa agreed to revise their proposal, first introduced in October, to present to members for a meeting tentatively scheduled for the second half of May.
A spokesman for the WTO told reporters that Okonjo-Iweala is heartened by the willingness of India and South Africa to address other countries’ concerns in their redrafted proposal.
In coming up with a U.S. position, Tai and the Biden team had to balance competing stakeholder views to ensure any outcome on the issue would save lives while not stifling innovation.
While progressive lawmakers, including Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, have pushed the White House to support the waiver, the pharmaceutical industry has argued that handing over vaccine technology to China and Russia would hurt their ability to compete.
In April, Tai called on the pharmaceutical industry to make sacrifices.
“The desperate needs that our people face in the current pandemic provide these companies with an opportunity to be the heroes they claim to be — and can be,” she said at a virtual conference at the WTO. “As governments and leaders of international institutions, the highest standards of courage and sacrifice are demanded of us in times of crisis. The same needs to be demanded of industry.”
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