World, Health

US draws praise, ire by backing waiver on COVID-19 vaccine patents

WHO hails 'bold move' while global pharma group says 'disappointing' decision will do nothing to boost vaccine output

Peter Kenny   | 06.05.2021
US draws praise, ire by backing waiver on COVID-19 vaccine patents


The World Health Organization on Thursday praised the US for backing a temporary waiver of intellectual property rights on COVID-19 vaccines.

Washington’s decision, however, also seems to have its detractors, with a representative body of global research-based pharmaceutical companies and associations terming it “disappointing.”

Soon after the US signaled on Wednesday that it would support waiving patent protections for coronavirus vaccines, WHO chief Tedros Ghebreyesus issued a statement saying it is “a bold move to end the pandemic as quickly as possible.”

“This is a monumental moment in the fight against COVID-19,” he said.

“The commitment by the President of the United States Joe Biden and Ambassador Katherine Tai, the US Trade Representative, to support the waiver of IP [intellectual property] protections on vaccines is a powerful example of American leadership to address global health challenges.”

Tedros said the WHO has worked throughout the COVD-19 pandemic to “scale up the development and distribution of vaccines, diagnostics, and treatments through the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator and its COVAX Facility for the equitable sharing of vaccines to at-risk people worldwide.”

The World Trade Organization (WTO) on Wednesday urged its members to respond urgently to the need for a multilateral solution to ensure equitable access to vaccines worldwide.

During a meeting of the body’s General Council, WTO chief Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala described it as the “moral and economic issue of our time.”

“Vaccine policy is economic policy because the global economic recovery cannot be sustained unless we find a way to get equitable access to vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics,” she said.

The proposal for a temporary waiver of the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) accord was put forward last year by India and South Africa.

“India and South Africa, principally have indicated that they’re going to revise their proposal,” said Keith Rockwell, a WTO spokesperson.

He said there will be “a revised text coming forward soon,” indicating a compromise may be reached.

The plan now has the backing of around 60 WTO members, including Bolivia, Egypt, Eswatini, Kenya, Mozambique, Pakistan, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, the African Group, and the Least Developed Countries Group.

Countries such as Switzerland, Japan, and Australia had opposed the waiver proposal, arguing that while patents and intellectual property play a role, they do not enable countries to produce products such as vaccines.

‘Waiving patents will not increase production’

“The decision of the US administration to support a patent waiver for COVID-19 vaccines is disappointing,” the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA) said in a statement.

The organization said it fully supports the goal of ensuring COVID-19 vaccines are quickly and equitably shared worldwide, but has consistently warned that a waiver is the wrong answer to a complex problem.

“Waiving patents of COVID-19 vaccines will not increase production nor provide practical solutions needed to battle this global health crisis,” read the statement.

“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.”

IFPMA stressed that the decision will not eliminate trade barriers or address bottlenecks in supply chains and scarcity of raw materials and ingredients in the supply chain.

Nor will it accelerate a willingness by rich countries to start sharing doses with developing countries, the statement added.

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