In a dramatic, and likely life-saving, reversal, the Biden administration has announced that it favors breaking patent protections on Covid-19 vaccines to speed their deployment in combating the global pandemic.
The announcement came from the office of the United States Trade Representative, Katherine Tai who vowed to make the case for waiving the intellectual property rights before of the World Trade Organization. “This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures,” Tai wrote. While emphasizing that the Biden administration “believes strongly in intellectual property protections” as a general principle, it now backs waiving vaccine IP “in service of ending this pandemic.” Tai vowed the administration would “work with the private sector and all possible partners – to expand vaccine manufacturing and distribution,” while also working to improve the supply of “raw materials needed to produce those vaccines.”
Indian and South African officials have been advocating for patent waivers since October, but the United States had stood in opposition until now — with even Dr. Anthony Fauci downplaying the idea — despite a call from the head of the World Health Organization pleading for IP waivers: “If now is not a time to use them, then when?” said Tedros Adhanom in March. “This is unprecedented times. And we believe, and WHO believes, that this is a time to trigger that provision and waive patent rights.”
The change in U.S. posture is significant. But Tai noted it likely marks the beginning of a contentious global conversation, “given the consensus-based nature of” of the WTO, “and the complexity of the issues involved.”
These extraordinary times and circumstances of call for extraordinary measures.
— Ambassador Katherine Tai (@AmbassadorTai) May 5, 2021
The U.S. reversal comes as covid cases have exploded catastrophically in India, driving a humanitarian crisis in which thousands dying for lack of basic medical supplies including oxygen. The shift also comes as a video from the 2020 campaign resurfaced with Joe Biden insisting to medical activist Ady Barkan that he would “absolutely, positively” override patent protections on lifesaving covid vaccines because “this is the only humane thing in the world to do.”
Here's Joe Biden in 2020 explicitly promising that he would waive vaccine patents as President.pic.twitter.com/HZCvjpJD3D
— Gravel Institute (@GravelInstitute) May 4, 2021
Patents on Covid vaccines are one of the stumbling blocks preventing pharmaceutical firms worldwide from being able to produce the drugs, creating production bottlenecks. But there are additional issues. Moderna, for example, had already vowed not to enforce the patents around it’s mRNA covid vaccine. Global health advocates are calling for technology transfers and pharmaceutical factory upgrades in addition to intellectual property relief.
Despite challenges ahead, advocates for putting public health over private profits are today taking a victory lap. “I applaud the Biden administration for taking this bold step to speed up the production and availability of coronavirus vaccines,” tweeted Sen. Bernie Sanders. “I also recognize the dedicated work done by activists around the world to put this issue on the global agenda. We are all in this together.”