WASHINGTON (AP) – The Biden administration on Wednesday joined calls for greater sharing of the technology behind COVID-19 vaccines to help accelerate the end of the pandemic, a change that puts the United States alongside many developing countries that want the rich countries to do more to give doses to the needy.
U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai announced the government’s position as the World Trade Organization talks about a possible temporary waiver of its protections that would allow more manufacturers to produce life-saving vaccines.
“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,” Tai said in a statement.
She warned that it would take time to reach the global “consensus” required to waive protections under WTO rules, and US officials said this would not have an immediate effect on the offer. COVID-19 Vaccine Global.
Tai’s announcement came hours after WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala spoke at a closed-door meeting of arguing developing and developed country ambassadors on the issue, but agreed on the need for greater access to COVID-19 treatments.
The WTO General Council addressed the issue of a temporary waiver for the protection of intellectual property on COVID-19 vaccines and other tools, which South Africa and India first proposed times in October. The idea has won the support of some progressive lawmakers in the West.
More than 100 countries voted in favor of the proposal, and a group of 110 members of Congress – all of Biden’s Democratic colleagues – sent him a letter last month, asking him to support the waiver.
Opponents – especially from the industry – say a waiver would not be a panacea. They insist that the production of coronavirus vaccines is complex and cannot be accelerated by facilitating intellectual property. They also say lifting protections could hurt future innovation.
Stephen Ubl, President and CEO of Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, said the US move “will confuse public and private partners, further weaken already strained supply chains and promote proliferation of counterfeit vaccines ”.
Dr Michelle McMurry-Heath, chief executive of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization business group, said in a statement that the move would undermine incentives to develop vaccines and treatments for future pandemics.
“Handing over to countries in need a cookbook without the ingredients, guarantees and the large manpower needed will not help people wait for the vaccine,” she said.
Pfizer declined to comment on Biden’s announcement, as did Johnson & Johnson, which developed a single-dose vaccine intended to aid vaccination campaigns in poor and rural areas. Moderna and AstraZeneca did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Companies have made efforts to deliver doses of the vaccine to poor countries at prices well below what they charge rich countries.
For example, Johnson & Johnson agreed last week to deliver up to 220 million doses of its vaccine to 55 African Union member states, starting in the third quarter of this year, and agreed in December to deliver until ‘to 500 million vaccines until 2022 for low-income countries via Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance.
Shares of Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson – huge companies with many lucrative products – fell less than 1% on the news. But Moderna, whose vaccine is the company’s only product, fell 6.2% in the late afternoon before regaining two-thirds of a percent by the afternoon.
It is not yet clear how some countries in Europe, which have influential pharmaceutical industries and previously shared the United States’ reservations about the waiver, would react.
WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell said a panel of intellectual property experts within the trade body is expected to take up the waiver proposal at a “provisional” meeting later this month here, before a formal meeting from June 8 to 9. This means that any final deal could be at best in weeks.
The proponents have revised it in the hope of making it more acceptable.
Okonjo-Iweala, in remarks posted on the WTO website, said that “it is incumbent on us to act quickly to put the revised text on the table, but also to start and undertake meaningful negotiations. on texts ”.
“I have a firm belief that once we can sit down with a real text in front of us, we will find a pragmatic way forward” which is “acceptable to all parties,” she said.
The co-sponsors of the idea were shuttling between the various diplomatic missions to assert their point of view, according to a Geneva trade official who was not authorized to speak publicly on the issue. A stalemate persists and the opposing sides remain very distant, the official said.
The argument, part of a long-standing debate over intellectual property protections, focuses on lifting patents, copyrights, and protections for industrial design and confidential information to help expand production and deployment of vaccines in the event of a supply shortage. The goal is to put the rules on hold for several years, just long enough to beat the pandemic.
The issue has become more urgent with an increase in cases in India, the second most populous country in the world and a key producer of vaccines – including one for COVID-19 which relies on technology from the University of Oxford and the Anglo-pharmaceutical maker. -Swedish AstraZeneca.
Michael Yee, a biotechnology analyst with the Jefferies Group, wrote to investors that the main access problems for developing countries are not patents or prices, but an insufficient supply of the necessary materials and know-how to produce them. vaccines and maintain quality one of Johnson & Johnson’s contract manufacturers in the US failed to do so, ruining millions of doses.
“Manufacturing supplies, raw materials, vials, caps and other key materials are in limited supply for 2021,” and may still be next year and beyond, Yee wrote. This is in part because it takes time to manufacture all of these components, and Moderna and Pfizer have committed to purchasing them “from large suppliers in large quantities for the foreseeable future.”
He added that Pfizer had previously applied for permission to sell its vaccine to India, which denied its request and called for further studies to be carried out. The United States, the European Union and many other countries have given this emergency clearance.
Supporters, including WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, note that such waivers are part of the WTO toolkit and insist that there is no better time to use them only during the once-in-a-century pandemic that claimed 3.2 million lives and further infected more than 437 million people and devastated economies, according to Johns Hopkins University.
“This is a monumental moment in the fight against COVID-19,” Tedros said in a statement Wednesday. He said the United States’ commitment “to support the renunciation of intellectual property protections on vaccines is a powerful example of American leadership in meeting the challenges of global health.”
Keaten reported from Geneva. AP medical writer Linda A. Johnson contributed from Fairless Hills, PA.