US backs plan to suspend Covid vaccine patents during pandemic

The US has backed a temporary suspension of intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines in a move likely to enrage the pharmaceutical industry, which strongly opposes the waiving of patents.

Joe Biden’s top trade adviser Katherine Tai said that while the US administration “believes strongly” in IP protections, it would support a waiver of those rules for Covid-19 vaccines.

“This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures,” Tai said in a statement.

In theory, a waiver would allow any pharmaceutical manufacturer in the world to make “copycat” vaccines without fear of being sued for intellectual property infringement.

Shares in the big makers of the coronavirus vaccine were hit by the announcement on Wednesday. Moderna, BioNTech and Novavax closed down by between 3 per cent and 6 per cent in New York.

The companies did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A measure to allow countries to temporarily override patent rights for pandemic-related medical products was proposed at the World Trade Organization by India and South Africa in October, and has since been backed by almost 60 countries.

Donald Trump’s administration firmly opposed the waiver, along with the UK, EU and Switzerland, but Tai had rattled US pharmaceutical companies by putting that position under review.

Tai said the US would “actively participate” in negotiations at the WTO to hammer out the text of the waiver, but added those discussions would take time given the complexity of the issues involved.

“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,” Tai said.

“It will also work to increase the raw materials needed to produce those vaccines,” she added.

Soumya Swaminathan, the WHO’s chief scientist, told the Financial Times the health body was “extremely encouraged” by the news.

“Accompanied by . . . the scale-up of regional manufacturing capacity, this could be a game changer in the fight against this pandemic.”

The prospect of a waiver has been supported by more than 100 Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill, as well as Nobel Prize-winning economists and former world leaders.

However, It has been opposed by many in the pharmaceutical industry, who have argued that manufacturing bottlenecks rather than IP rules are the primary constraint on producing more vaccines.

Steve Ubl, the chief executive of PhRMA, a trade group representing pharmaceutical companies, said the waiver would “not save lives” and “does nothing to address the real challenges to getting more shots in arms”.

“In the midst of a deadly pandemic, the Biden administration has taken an unprecedented step that will undermine our global response to the pandemic and compromise safety,” said Ubl. “This decision will sow confusion between public and private partners, further weaken already strained supply chains and foster the proliferation of counterfeit vaccines.”

Pharma companies have previously warned that temporarily scrapping patents for Covid-19 shots would risk handing novel technology to China and Russia.

Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, which campaigned for the waiver, welcomed the news and urged the Biden administration to produce “the fastest possible agreement” on a waiver text at the WTO.

“By fighting for the rest of the world to have access to vaccines like we here have, the Biden administration is recognising that ‘no one is safe until we are all vaccinated’ is more than a slogan,” said Wallach.

On person briefed on the pharma industry’s lobbying efforts described the administration’s decision to back a waiver as a “head scratcher”.

“Politically it will put many Democrats in a difficult position defending a policy that would ship good manufacturing jobs from Massachusetts to China,” the person said.

Ron Wyden, the Democratic chair of the Senate Finance committee, which oversees trade, said he would support the administration’s efforts to get vaccines out as quickly as possible and planned to work with US trade representative “to ensure they negotiate a waiver of vaccine IP protections that will get results and save lives around the world”.

Earlier this week, Anthony Fauci, the president’s chief medical adviser, said he was “agnostic” on the question of whether there should be a waiver, but warned that the process could get bogged down in time-consuming litigation.

His comments provoked a backlash from Biden’s liberal supporters, however, especially when he was questioned by the journalist Mehdi Hasan on his online television show.

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