By John Zarocostas
May 6, 2021
The Biden administration backs waiving WTO intellectual property protections for COVID-19 Vaccines. The surprise move by the White House lauded by advocacy groups is expected to break a six months stalemate in the talks on the initiative led by India and South Africa.
"That's a shock. This is monumental," is how a top Geneva-based international health advocate reacted to the statement by the US Trade Representative Katherine Tai released Wednesday announcing Washington's support for waiving WTO intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines.
"That is an incredible shift. I would not have expected it that soon from the Biden administration in light of the amount of lobbying power in Washington against the move and the policy compromises that are needed," said a Geneva source close to the policy battles in the US capitol between progressives and conservatives in the Democratic party.
"Credit to India, South Africa, and civil society for mounting a powerful campaign that pushed for a waiver," said one well-placed source tracking the WTO waiver issue, and added eventually, the democratic administration "divided over the issue, cracked."
"This represents a seismic shift in the WTO's negotiations on access to COVID-19 vaccines. The US is on the right side of history. The question remains where do others such as European Union, Japan, and Switzerland stand on this going forward."
Knowledge Ecology International
WTO trade diplomats, speaking on background, said this is "a tipping point" and will change the dynamics in the WTO talks on a COVID-19 waiver where the issue has been bogged down for six months between major developed countries and developing countries advocating for a waiver led by India and South Africa.
The US move comes after weeks of consultations by Tai, and other senior members of the Biden administration, with all stakeholders. and mounting public pressure around the planet - including from the heads of Geneva-based health agencies spearheaded by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNAIDS.
“This is a global health crisis and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures. The Administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections, but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for COVID-19 vaccines. We will actively participate in text-based negotiations at the World Trade Organization (WTO) 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, " USTR Tai declared.
“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."
A WTO spokesperson declined to comment on the USTR statement.
Arthur Appleton, partner in the international trade law firm of AppletonLuff, and head of its Geneva office told The G|O "I think this is a bold move by the Biden administration and if successful will go some way towards alleviating the pandemic."
In a similar vein, Thiru Balasubramaniam, Geneva representative for the advocacy group Knowledge Ecology International, told The G|O:
"This represents a seismic shift in the WTO's negotiations on access to COVID-19 vaccines. The US is on the right side of history. The question remains where do others such as the European Union, Japan, and Switzerland stand on this going forward."
The magnitude of the new wave of the pandemic in India- a major vaccine producer- that has brought the county's health system at a break point in a matter of weeks some believe has also played a role , one insider told the G|O.
India has turned on its head the argument by opponents of the waiver that the world would gradually cope. "India has shown how fast things can go wrong," the source added.
The Geneva diplomatic community reacted with utter surprise to the news of a historic reversal from the US on the issue of intellectual property rights. Diplomats contacted by The G|O's Jamil Chade all expressed their astonishment.
The first signal out of Washington that the Biden administration might decide to break ranks with the pharmaceutical industry came on Sunday when Ron Klain, the White House chief of staff declared that "intellectual property rights is part of the problem", a position disputed by the vaccine industry.
In a statement released shortly before midnight on May 5, the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Associations (IFPMA) expressed its "disappointment."
Its statement reads in part: "As we have consistently stated, a waiver is the simple but the wrong answer to what is a complex problem. Waiving patents of COVID-19 vaccines will not increase production nor provide practical solutions needed to battle this global health crisis. On the contrary, it is likely to lead to disruption; while distracting from addressing the real challenges in scaling up production and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines globally: namely elimination of trade barriers, addressing bottlenecks in supply chains and scarcity of raw materials and ingredients in the supply chain, and a willingness by rich countries to start sharing doses with poor countries."
Late last night, May 5, Dr Tedros, WHO Director-General praised the US decision:
"I commend the United States on its historic decision for vaccine equity and prioritizing the well-being of all people everywhere at a critical time. Now let's all move together swiftly, in solidarity, building on the ingenuity and commitment of scientists who produced life-saving COVID-19 vaccines.”
With Jamil Chade and Philippe Mottaz