Taking ‘extraordinary measures,’ White House backs suspending patents on vaccines

May 7, 2021

The Biden Administration came out on Wednesday, May5, in support of waiving intellectual property protections for coronavirus vaccines—thereby, siding with international efforts to bolster production amid concerns about vaccine access in developing nations, The New York Times reports.

Under former President Trump, the United States had been a major holdout at the World Trade Organization over a proposal to suspend some of the world economic body’s intellectual property protections—enabling drugmakers worldwide to gain access to the closely guarded trade secrets of how the vaccines have been made.

However, the Times notes, President Biden had come under increasing pressure to throw his support behind the proposal, drafted by India and South Africa and backed by many congressional Democrats.

Katherine Tai, the United States Trade Representative, announced the Administration’s position on Wednesday afternoon, as the pandemic continued to spiral in India and South America.

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

Support from the White House is not a guarantee that a waiver will be adopted. The European Union has also been standing in the way, and changes to international intellectual property rules require unanimous agreement. Tai said the United States would participate in negotiations at the World Trade Organization over the matter, but that they would “take time given the consensus-based nature of the institution and the complexity of the issues involved.”

Standing against her will be the pharmaceutical industry, which responded angrily to the extraordinary decision. Stephen J. Ubl, the president and CEO of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), called the announcement “an unprecedented step that will undermine our global response to the pandemic and compromise safety.”

“This decision will sow confusion between public and private partners, further weaken already strained supply chains and foster the proliferation of counterfeit vaccines,” he said in a statement, adding that the move would have the effect of “handing over American innovations to countries looking to undermine our leadership in biomedical discovery.”

The pharmaceutical industry has argued that a suspension of patent protections would undermine risk-taking and innovation.

“Who will make the vaccine next time?” Brent Saunders, the former chief executive of Allergan, which is now part of AbbVie, wrote on Twitter.

However, the Times reports, global health activists, who have been pressing for the waiver, praised the Administration’s decision. It is “a truly historic step, which shows that President Biden is committed to being not just an American leader, but a global one,” said Priti Krishtel, an executive director of the Initiative for Medicines, Access & Knowledge (I-MAK).

But the activists said a waiver alone would not increase the world’s vaccine supply. It must be accompanied by a process known as “tech transfer,” in which patent holders supply technical know-how and personnel. Activists also are demanding that Biden use his leverage to ensure that manufacturing is scaled up around the globe, and not just by the pharmaceutical companies that now hold the patents.

“Handing needy countries a recipe book without the ingredients, safeguards and sizable work force needed will not help people waiting for the vaccine,” Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath, the president and chief executive of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), said in a statement. “Handing them the blueprint to construct a kitchen that — in optimal conditions — can take a year to build will not help us stop the emergence of dangerous new Covid variants.”

Shares of the pharmaceutical companies BioNTech, Moderna and Novavax dropped on Wednesday afternoon as news broke of the Biden administration’s decision.

Research contact: @nytimes

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