A dramatic reversal in US vaccine patent protection policy left a G7 meeting in disarray, with Canada and other countries clearly refusing to support the new US position.
The Biden administration announced on Wednesday that it would now support a proposal by developing countries to allow a temporary waiver on the COVID-19 vaccine patents. The move aims to allow new suppliers to start manufacturing the vaccines, reducing the increasingly desperate global shortage of doses.
“This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary action,” US Trade Representative Katherine Tai said in a statement.
“The Administration strongly believes in the protection of intellectual property, but in the service of the end of this pandemic, it supports the lifting of these protections for COVID-19 vaccines.”
The new position is a major change for the United States, which previously refused to support a patent exemption. While the pharmaceutical industry has vigorously opposed a waiver, the move has been warmly welcomed by health activist groups, who have been pushing for a waiver and staging rallies for it. The waiver had previously been supported by American politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
The Canadian government, however, declined to say whether it would support the new US position. Instead, he issued a vague statement, pledging to seek solutions.
“We look forward to working with the United States to find solutions to ensure a fair and swift global recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic,” Canadian Trade Minister Mary Ng said on Wednesday in a statement in response to the announcement of the United States.
“We continue to work with international partners and actively support the efforts of the WTO to accelerate the global production and distribution of vaccines,” she said.
Asked specifically whether Canada supports the reversal of US policy, Ms Ng’s press secretary, Youmy Han, reiterated the minister’s remarks. “We look forward to continuing to work with the United States and international partners to find consensus solutions to this problem,” she told The Globe and Mail in an email.
The World Trade Organization, which has been considering the patent waiver proposal for seven months, operates on consensus and cannot approve a new policy if key countries oppose it.
The patent waiver proposal was first presented by South Africa and India last October, and the plan was subsequently supported by more than 100 countries, mostly in the developing world.
The G7 meeting in London, which ended hours before the US announcement, made no statement on the vaccine patent issue, suggesting Washington does not yet have the backing of some of its biggest allies. An intellectual property waiver would require consensus among the 164 members of the World Trade Organization.
In their final statement, the G7 foreign ministers said they had agreed to push to speed up production of affordable vaccines – but they avoided calling on the big pharmaceutical companies to give up their intellectual property rights. Instead, ministers said they would work with industry to encourage “voluntary licensing and technology transfer agreements on mutually agreed terms.”
The G7 has not made any new commitments regarding vaccine sharing either.
World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said new US support for the waiver proposal is “a monumental moment” in the fight against the pandemic. He called it “a landmark decision for vaccine equity and prioritizing the well-being of all people everywhere at a critical time.”
In supporting the waiver of intellectual property protections, the United States made a key distinction: It supported the waiver only for COVID-19 vaccines, and not for other technologies such as medical treatments or tests, which had been included in the original waiver proposal. last october. This narrowing of the waiver proposal is seen as an attempt to reduce pharmaceutical industry opposition to it.
The change in the US stance may be enough to relaunch progress on the waiver long stalled at WTO meetings. So far, opposition from rich countries has prevented the WTO from moving to the next step in the process: text-based negotiations. These negotiations, even if they are limited to the proposed exemption for vaccines instead of the broader plan, are now more likely to move forward. Supporters of the waiver have already indicated their willingness to revise the wording of their proposal.
“We will actively participate in the text-based negotiations at the WTO necessary to achieve this,” Tai said in her statement on Wednesday.
“These negotiations will take time, given the consensual nature of the institution and the complexity of the issues at stake.”
Health activists urged Canada to support the waiver. “Canada cannot continue to sit idly by in the fight to give up intellectual property rights as the rest of the world works to end this global crisis,” said Diana Sarosi, director of policy and campaigns at Oxfam Canada.
In a statement, she said Canada had “chosen to stay on the sidelines while the United States stood up to support the world’s most vulnerable.” The new US position is “a testament to the widespread public movement calling for an end to vaccine monopolies,” Ms. Sarosi said.
The G7 meeting was supposed to mark a return to something like diplomacy as usual. But he was shaken Wednesday by a COVID alert, recalling that the pandemic remains the greatest threat hanging over the world today.
Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar was forced to withdraw from the London rally – the first face-to-face meeting of the G7 in two years – after two members of his country’s delegation tested positive. India is currently grappling with the world’s worst outbreak and a dangerous new variant of the coronavirus, reporting more than 382,000 new cases and 3,786 deaths as of Tuesday alone.
The meeting of foreign ministers – which sets the agenda for a G7 leaders’ summit in June in the English port of Falmouth – had been dubbed ‘COVID-secure’, with participants tested daily and separate delegations by plastic screens during the sessions.
Upon arrival, the Indian delegation secured a diplomatic exemption from the mandatory quarantine Britain recently imposed on all travelers arriving from the country. Mr. Jaishankar and his staff are now said to be all self-isolated.
Although not a member of the G7, India had been invited to participate on the sidelines of the Foreign Ministers’ meeting with South Korea, Australia and South Africa.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, as host, and US President Joe Biden sought to expand this year’s G7 from the usual gathering of the world’s largest economies – Canada, US, Japan, Britain, France, Germany and Italy – to a larger grouping of leading democracies.
The main focus of the meeting was supposed to be the challenges posed by authoritarian states such as China and Russia. But COVID-19 – as it has so often done over the past 16 months – has quickly taken over the agenda.
“As a precaution and also out of consideration for others, I have decided to conduct my engagements in virtual mode,” Jaishankar said on Twitter just before the start of the meetings on Wednesday.
He later posted photos of himself sitting in his hotel room, having virtual conversations with various G7 foreign ministers, including Canada’s Marc Garneau. “So far, but so close,” he posted alongside a photo of himself watching British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab address the rest of the group.
After his virtual meeting with Mr. Jaishankar, Mr. Garneau announced that Canada would provide 25,000 vials of the antiviral drug remdesivir as well as “up to 350 ventilators from its national strategic emergency stockpile” to assist India in its fight against the pandemic.
In a conference call with Canadian media, Mr. Garneau said the fact that tests detected the presence of COVID among the Indian delegation was a credit to the strict measures Britain had taken to protect participants in the meeting. Mr Garneau said he had been tested five times since arriving on Monday and would self-isolate upon return in the same way all travelers arriving in Canada are currently required to do.
He also defended the need for him to be in London for the G-7 meeting at a time when many Canadians are being told to stay home.
“There are some things where it’s important to be face to face with leaders of other countries to discuss extremely important issues,” he said. “There’s a dimension you get when you’re face to face, especially when dealing with diplomacy, that’s hard to get when you zoom in with your counterparts.”
G7 ministers, in their final statement, called on Beijing to allow the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights unhindered access to the Xinjiang region, where the Communist Party chairs a network of indoctrination camps and where there is also evidence of the use of forced labor. . Beijing has also been criticized for engineering the erosion of democracy in Hong Kong and for blocking Taiwan’s participation in the WHO and other international forums.
The G7 also had harsh words for Russia, which has been accused of “systematically suppressing the voices of the opposition, human rights defenders, independent civil society and the media”. The Kremlin has also been criticized for its “irresponsible and destabilizing behavior”, including a recent military build-up near Russia’s borders with Ukraine.
“Foreign evil actors persist in their attempts to undermine democracies,” the final statement read. “The G7 is committed to working together to show global leadership and take action to denounce and deter these actors and to defend democracy.”