India on Thursday welcomed the US administration’s support for waiving patent protections for Covid-19 vaccines and expressed the hope that a waiver can be quickly approved at the World Trade Organization (WTO) through a consensus-based approach.
US Trade Representative (USTR) Katherine Tai announced the Biden administration’s support on Wednesday following pressure from a group of 110 Democratic lawmakers. More than 100 countries have backed a proposal made by India and South Africa at the WTO last October for a waiver of intellectual property protections on Covid-19 vaccines.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi personally raised the matter with US President Joe Biden during a phone call on April 26, and informed him about India’s initiative at the WTO that is aimed at countries around the world.
“We welcome the statement of the US government of 5th May announcing their support for this initiative. We are hopeful that with a consensus-based approach, the waiver can be approved quickly at the WTO,” the external affairs ministry said in a statement.
“The waiver is an important step for enabling rapid scaling up of manufacture and timely availability of affordable Covid-19 vaccines and essential medical products,” it said.
India and South Africa proposed a relaxation in the norms of the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) on October 2 last year in view of the global health crisis and the need to combat the pandemic. The move was aimed at ensuring quick and affordable access to vaccines for developing countries.
“As a result of proactive outreach by India and other like-minded countries, the proposal has received the support of more than 120 countries,” the statement said.
The US move comes against the backdrop of a fresh push by India and South Africa at the WTO for the waiver of patent protections by presenting a revised text of last year’s proposal that is expected to highlight the urgent need for equitable and speedy access to vaccines following a second wave of Coronavirus infections in countries such as India. The revised proposal is also expected to state that patent protections for vaccines should be waived for a limited timeframe.
USTR Tai said in a statement that the Biden administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections but “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.
The US will actively participate in text-based negotiations at the WTO to obtain the waiver. “Those negotiations will take time given the consensus-based nature of the institution and the complexity of the issues involved,” she said.
With vaccine supply for the American people secured, the Biden administration will ramp up efforts by working with the private sector and all possible partners to expand vaccine manufacturing and distribution. It will also work to increase raw materials needed to produce vaccines, Tai said.
The US position was also welcomed by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, whose spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric described the move as unprecedented. “It opens the opportunity for vaccine producers to share the knowledge and technology that will allow the effective expansion of locally-produced vaccines and can significantly increase the supply to the COVAX facility,” he said.
However, the Biden administration’s decision has angered pharmaceutical companies, which have opposed any waiver on the grounds that it could hurt future innovation. They have also said the production of Covid-19 vaccines is a complex process that requires extensive capabilities and sophisticated technology, and can’t be ramped up simply by easing patent protections.