US backs plan to waive COVID-19 vaccine patents

The NCOC said all government servants will have to be vaccinated by the end of June. Source: FILE/Online.

LONDON: US President Joe Biden’s administration announced support for a global waiver on patent protections for COVID-19 vaccines, offering hope to poor nations that have struggled to access the life-saving doses.

India, where the death toll hit a new daily record amid fears the peak is still to come, has been leading the fight within the World Trade Organization (WTO) to allow more drugmakers manufacture the vaccines, a move opposed by pharma giants

US Trade Representative Katherine Tai said that while intellectual property rights for businesses are important, Washington “supports the waiver of those protections for COVID-19 vaccines” in order to end the pandemic.

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

Biden had been under intense pressure to waive protections for vaccine manufacturers, especially amid criticism that rich nations were hoarding COVID-19 vaccines.

World Health Organization (WHO) head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called the US decision “historic” and marked “a monumental moment in the fight against COVID19.”

Tai cautioned said that negotiations “will take time given the consensus-based nature” of the WTO. The aim “is to get as many safe and effective vaccines to as many people as fast as possible,” she said.

With supplies for Americans secured, the Biden administration will continue efforts “to expand vaccine manufacturing and distribution,” and will work to “increase the raw materials needed to produce those vaccines.”

The WTO has been facing calls to temporarily remove the intellectual property protections on COVID-19 vaccines, known as a TRIPS waiver in reference to the agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property. WTO chief Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala described it as the “moral and economic issue of our time.”

The notion has been fiercely opposed by pharmaceutical giants and their host countries, which insist the patents are not the main roadblocks to scaling up production, and warned the move could hamper innovation.

“A waiver is the simple but the wrong answer to what is a complex problem,” the Geneva-based International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations lobby group said.

India has in recent weeks endured a devastating surge in coronavirus cases. In an effort to boost the country’s collapsing health system, India’s reserve bank announced $6.7 billion in cheap financing for vaccine makers, hospitals and health firms.

India’s crisis has been partly fueled by a lack of vaccines which exacerbated the global shortage as India is the world’s biggest producer of Covid shots.

In London, foreign ministers from the Group of Seven wealthy democracies committed to financially support the vaccine-sharing program, COVAX but there was no immediate announcement on fresh funding.

The pandemic has claimed more than 3.2 million lives worldwide but many wealthy nations have made progress in suppressing the virus as mass vaccination campaigns gather steam. More than 1.2 billion doses have been administered globally, but fewer than one percent in the least developed countries.

Vaccine shortages are not an issue in the United States, which could soon be sitting on as many as 300 million extra doses — nearly equivalent to its entire population. Biden said he wanted 70 percent of US adults to have received at least one shot by the July 4 Independence Day holiday.

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