WASHINGTON: The Biden administration has backed an initiative by India and South Africa at the WTO to temporarily waive patent rules on COVID-19 vaccines, seen as a breakthrough in the global fight against the deadly pandemic by potentially expanding the supply of the vaccines and more affordable doses for less wealthy nations.
Announcing the major policy decision after intense internal debate and strong pushback from American drugmakers, US Trade Representative Katherine Tai on Wednesday said this is a global health crisis and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures.
"The (Biden) 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.
The Biden administration's decision will make it easier for the WTO's General Council to approve the proposal.
The General Council's meeting is currently underway in Geneva.
If approved, the waiver would allow production of vaccines to be ramped up and provide more affordable doses for less wealthy countries.
"We will actively participate in text-based negotiations at the World Trade Organisation needed to make that happen.
Those negotiations will take time given the consensus-based nature of the institution and the complexity of the issues involved," Tai said.
For the past several weeks, India's Ambassador to the US Taranjit Singh Sandhu, along with the diplomats from South Africa, had been meeting US lawmakers and officials regarding their proposal.
"We appreciate the US administration's announcement today of its support for waiver of IPR for COVID-19 vaccines," Sandhu told PTI on Wednesday.
The head of the World Health Organisation Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called the move a "monumental moment" in the fight against the pandemic.
"This is a monumental moment in the fight against #COVID19," he tweeted, adding that the commitment by President Biden and USTR Tai to support the waiver of IP protections on vaccines is a powerful example of US leadership to address global health challenges.
President Biden, as a Democratic candidate promised to support such waivers, but had been under pressure from American pharmaceutical giants to keep them in place, US media reported.
Over the last one month, Tai had extensive consultations with various stakeholders both within and outside the US.
The White House described it as a policy process.
"The administration's aim is to get as many safe and effective vaccines to as many people as fast as possible.
"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," Tai said.
US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said the Biden administration's support of a Covid-19 vaccine waiver proposal "put people over patents."
"To me it was a value statement," Murthy told CNN.
He emphasised the role of the US in helping lead the world through the global Covid-19 crisis, saying that "if we stick together, if we work together, if we help work and collaborate with countries around the world, I do believe we will turn this pandemic around."
The Biden administration took such a major decision despite stiff opposition from major pharma companies and US Chambers of Commerce, which argued that this will impact their intellectual property.
The Opposition Republican Party had also written to President Joe Biden and Tai expressing concerns over the proposal.
House Ways and Means Committee Republican leader Kevin Brady said that the world needs COVID vaccines now, but it shouldn't be done by damaging the pathway to new vaccines and cures the world will need in the future.
"Looking ahead to the next pandemic, it is dangerous for America to consent to strip away patents on lifesaving COVID vaccines now that cost businesses billions of dollars to develop at a historic pace - and to reward China with access to US innovation for a world pandemic China created," he said.
"The better solution to help our global neighbours is to solve the very real logistical hurdles slowing access to these vaccines, not undermine the incentives to develop them," Brady said.
On the other hand, more than 100 Democratic Congressmen and 10 Senators had written to Biden in support of TRIPS waiver.
Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden said pitching in to defeat the COVID-19 pandemic globally is essential to protecting Americans' health and accelerating economic recovery.
Meanwhile, PhRMA which represents America's leading innovative biopharmaceutical research companies has said that the "decision will sow confusion between public and private partners, further weaken already strained supply chains and foster the proliferation of counterfeit vaccines."
PhRMA president and CEO Stephen J Ubl said this change in longstanding American policy will not save lives.
"It also flies in the face of President (Joe) Biden's stated policy of building up American infrastructure and creating jobs by handing over American innovations to countries looking to undermine our leadership in biomedical discovery," he said.
Nurses in the US on the other hand applauded the decision.
"The welcome statement by President Biden's US Trade Representative Katherine Tai joining this effort is a landmark decision that is also a tribute to healthcare and human rights activists, and nurses in particular, around the world who have been pressing for this humanitarian step," said National Nurses United (NNU) president Jean Ross.
"As nurses on the front lines, we can tell you with absolute certainty: People are dying and will continue to die because of strict IP laws that are preventing the generic production of COVID-19 vaccines," said NNU executive director Bonnie Castillo.