The Biden government on Wednesday voted in favor of renouncing intellectual property protection for Covid-19 vaccines. This is a breakthrough in international efforts to suspend patent rules as the pandemic rages across India and South America.
The United States was a major contributor to the World Trade Organization on a proposal to suspend intellectual property protection in order to boost vaccine production. But President Biden had come under increasing pressure to throw his support behind the proposal, including from many Congress Democrats.
Katherine Tai, the United States sales representative, announced the government’s position in a statement Wednesday afternoon.
“This is a global health crisis and the exceptional circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic call for exceptional measures,” she said. “The government is a firm believer in the protection of intellectual property, but supports the waiver of this protection for Covid-19 vaccines in the service of ending this pandemic.”
Ms. Tai added that the United States is participating in the negotiations in the W.TO. “These negotiations will take some time, given the consensus-based nature of the institution and the complexity of the problems involved.”
Activists have pushed for the waiver, but also said that going without the vaccine alone will not improve the global supply of the vaccine; It must be accompanied by the process known as “technology transfer”, in which patent holders provide technical know-how and personnel.
“This is a start,” said Gregg Gonsalves, an epidemiologist and longtime AIDS activist at Yale University who has pushed for the move. “We now need to write the text of this derogation to be transparent and public, but as we have always said, we now need technology transfer.”
On Wednesday before, members of the WTO held another round of discussions on renouncing the protection of intellectual property. Further discussion is expected in the coming weeks as India and South Africa, who proposed the waiver, prepare a revised plan for nations to consider.
WTO Director General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala urged members to continue negotiations on the text of the plan.
“I firmly believe that once we can sit down with an actual text in front of us, we will find a pragmatic way forward,” she said at a meeting of the organization’s general council.