The Biden administration has announced support for waiving intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines.
The move was in a response to the “extraordinary circumstances” of the COVID-19 pandemic, US Trade Representative Katherine Tai said in a statement.
“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.
“We will actively participate in text-based negotiations at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) needed to make that happen.
“These negotiations will take time given the consensus-based nature of the institution and the complexity of the issues involved.”
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The US has come under increasing pressure from countries like India and South Africa to support waivers. Pharmaceutical companies eyeing big profits have lobbied hard to keep them in place.
“The Administration’s aim is to get as many safe and effective vaccines to as many people as fast as possible,” Ms Tai said in her statement.
“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.”
The global rollout of the vaccine has been lopsided.
In January more people had been immunised in Israel — with its population of less than 10 million — than in Africa and Latin America combined.
THIS MATTER IS CRITICAL
The WTO has for months been facing calls to temporarily remove the intellectual property protections on COVID-19 vaccines.
Proponents say that would help boost production in developing countries that so far have received far fewer jabs.
But that notion has been met with fierce opposition from pharmaceutical giants and their host countries, which insist the patents are not the main roadblocks to scaling up production, and warn the move could hamper innovation.
WTO chief Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said the way the issue was handled was “critical”.
“We need to have a sense of urgency on how we approach this issue of response to COVID-19 because the world is watching,” she said, describing equitable access to the tools to fight the pandemic as the “moral and economic issue of our time”.