U.S. support for lifting the protections marked a dramatic shift in its own stance, and many believed it could lead to a breakthrough, sparking cheers from activists and complaints from Big Pharma. Yet even a single country voting against a waiver would be enough to block the efforts of the World Trade Organization.
With the administration’s announcement on Wednesday, the United States became the first country in the developed world with a large vaccine manufacturer to publicly support the waiver idea launched by India and South Africa in October. And the vocal support that followed from French President Emmanuel Macron suggested that countries reassess their positions.
“I am totally in favor of this opening up of intellectual property,” French President Emmanuel Macron said Thursday during a visit to a vaccination center.
Like many pharmaceutical companies, Macron has also insisted that a waiver of intellectual property rights will not solve the problem of access to vaccines. These protections give companies that have developed vaccines special rights over how the know-how is used – and by whom.
Even if those protections are relaxed, manufacturers in countries like Africa are now not equipped to make COVID-19 vaccines – so vaccine donations should be prioritized instead, Macron said.
As the world seeks to respond to COVID, the pandemic has halted routine childhood immunization campaigns against measles and yellow fever. This World Immunization Week, Darla Silva of UNICEF USA explains how to use the hashtag #VaccinesWork and help children in need.
Many other leaders rang – but not all expressed immediate support. Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio wrote on Facebook that the US announcement was “a very important signal” and that the world needed “free access” to vaccine patents. But Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi was more cautious.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called the US position “good news” but did not directly respond to whether his country would support a waiver. South Korean officials say they are also paying close attention to the Biden administration’s appeal, but have also avoided questions of whether Seoul approves the idea.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said his country will support him.
In closed-door discussions at the WTO in recent months, Australia, Britain, Canada, the European Union, Japan, Norway, Singapore and the United States have opposed the idea. waiver, according to a Geneva-based trade official on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
Brazil was the only developing country to oppose it, while China and Russia – two other major manufacturers of COVID-19 vaccines – did not express a position in either case, but were open to more discussions, the official said.
Some 80 countries, mostly developing countries, have supported the Indian and South African proposal, the official said.
While Macron was energetic, others in Europe were not. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the 27-nation bloc was ready to talk about the waiver idea, but remained without commitment for the time being and stressed that the bloc was exporting vaccines extensively – unlike in the USA.
This echoes the position of the global pharmaceutical industry, which insists that a faster solution would be for rich countries with stocks of vaccines to start sharing them with poorer ones. Several European leaders have also underlined this.
“All countries in the world where vaccines are produced must be prepared to export them to others as well,” said German Health Minister Jens Spahn. “The EU stands ready in word and deed… We are happy if the United States is ready now. “
EU leaders have said the bloc will start discussing the possibility of joining the US decision, possibly at a summit that begins on Friday.
The industry has resisted the waiver, insisting that the production of coronavirus vaccines is complicated and cannot be accelerated by relaxing intellectual property protections. Instead, he says reducing bottlenecks in supply chains and scarcity of ingredients in vaccines are the most pressing issues right now.
“A waiver is the simple but the wrong answer to what is a complex problem,” said the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations. “Relinquishing COVID-19 vaccine patents will not increase production or provide the practical solutions needed to tackle this global health. crisis. “
The industry also claims that an intellectual property waiver will do more harm than good in the long run. Relaxing patent protections would eat away at their profits, reducing the incentives for innovators to make the kind of tremendous leaps they’ve made with COVID-19 vaccines, which have been produced at a lightning-fast and unprecedented rate.
Critics and supporters disagree on whether there are any manufacturers who could make the vaccines if they received the plans. Opponents have noted that COVID-19 vaccines can be incredibly difficult to manufacture.
Intellectual property expert Shyam Balganesh, professor at Columbia Law School, said a waiver would remove “a lot of the bureaucracy” around WTO rules, but would only go so far in due to other bottlenecks in the manufacture and distribution of vaccines.
But activists and public health advocates applauded the US move, which marks an almost complete reversal of US policy under the Trump administration which criticized both the WTO and the World Health Organization.
“A waiver of patents for # COVID19 vaccines and drugs could be a game-changer for Africa, unlock millions of additional vaccine doses and save countless lives. We applaud the leadership shown by South Africa, India and the United States, and urge others to support them, ”tweeted WHO Africa Chief Matshidiso Moeti.
“There are not enough vaccines for everyone. India is now registering an extremely high number of coronavirus cases as other countries move closer to vaccinating a large part of their population. A key difference? Countries like the United States bought doses before production, speeding up the process. Former FDA Associate Commissioner Peter Pitts explains.
Just over 20 million doses of the vaccine have been administered across the African continent, which has an estimated 1.3 billion people.
Gavi, the vaccine alliance that is co-leading the UN-backed effort to get vaccines to countries where they are needed, also welcomed the US move and the US pledge to also boost production of incoming raw materials. in vaccines and that are in brief. supply.
There is a precedent. In 2003, WTO members agreed to waive patent rights and allow poorer countries to import generic treatments for HIV / AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.
Many are hoping for a historic replay to fight COVID-19.
Africa CDC Director John Nkengasong told reporters: “We believe that when the story of this pandemic is written, history will remember the decision of the US government as doing the right thing at the right time.”
Associated Press editors Raf Casert and Lorne Cook in Brussels, John Leicester in Paris, Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, and Cara Anna in Nairobi, Kenya, contributed to this report.