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US announces support for waiving Covid vaccine patents

European Union “ready to discuss” waiver but pharmaceutical industry says decision is “wrong answer”

The United States has announced its support for waiving intellectual property for Covid-19 vaccines, in a move that could swing a months-long argument in favour of dropping the protections.

On 5 May, the US trade representative Katherine Tai said that while the US believes strongly in IP protections, “the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures”. Tai said the US would “actively participate” in negotiations at the World Trade Organization (WTO) in order to make the waiver happen.

World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus described the US move as “a monumental moment in the fight against Covid-19” and “a powerful example of American leadership to address global health challenges”.

Consensus needed

The waiver was first suggested to the WTO in October 2020 by India and South Africa, who said that IP rights were potentially hindering getting affordable medical products to patients with Covid-19. With many higher-income countries pressing ahead with vaccination campaigns, proponents of the waiver say it could speed up access to Covid-19 vaccines in low- and middle-income countries.

The proposal was previously opposed by the administration of former US president Donald Trump as well as the UK and the European Union. Even with US support, a waiver could take a long time to agree because the WTO requires a consensus of its 164 member governments.

But on 6 May the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said the EU is “ready to discuss” how the proposal for a waiver could help address the Covid-19 crisis “in an effective and pragmatic manner”, despite the fact that the European Parliament voted against supporting the waiver on 29 April.

“In the short run, however, we call upon all vaccine producing countries to allow exports and to avoid measures that disrupt supply chains,” said von der Leyen.

Industry opposition

But groups representing the pharmaceutical industry said removing IP restrictions will not speed up production of vaccines and may even disrupt vaccine development.

The International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations said on 5 May that “a waiver is the simple but the wrong answer to what is a complex problem”, adding that waiving patents “will not increase production nor provide practical solutions needed to battle this global health crisis”.

Nathalie Moll, director general of the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations, called the US move a “short-sighted and ineffectual decision” that “puts the hard-won progress in fighting this terrible disease in jeopardy”.

EFPIA said if the waiver were to be approved by the WTO, it “would remove incentives for companies to continue research into new variants, new diagnostics, treatments and vaccines”.

A version of this article also appeared in Research Europe