The Biden administration is examining ways to ensure that a waiver of COVID-19 vaccine patents to help poor countries does not pass sensitive US biopharmaceutical technology to China and Russia, addressing a number of concerns, say American and industrial officials.
President Joe Biden on Wednesday supported the United States entering into negotiations at the World Trade Organization to waive intellectual property rights as a way to boost vaccine supply by allowing poorer countries to manufacture the their.
So far, the vaccines have gone en masse to the wealthier countries, which won contracts for them earlier this year. COVID-19 infection rates in wealthy countries have plummeted with rising vaccination rates this year, but infections continue to rise in 36 countries, with daily cases in India skyrocketing to nearly 400,000 per day.
Western pharmaceutical companies, many of whom have received government support to develop vaccines, strongly oppose the transfer of intellectual property to manufacture them. They say poorer countries will be slow to build manufacturing capacity and compete for scarce supplies, which will affect production.
Albert Bourla, CEO of Pfizer Inc, said on Friday that the proposed waiver would disrupt progress so far in increasing vaccine supply. “It will trigger a rush for the essential inputs we need to make a safe and effective vaccine. Entities with little or no vaccine manufacturing experience are likely to hunt for the very raw materials we need to scale our production, thus endangering the safety and security of all. ”
Many companies and now some US officials fear the move could allow China to skip years of research and erode the US advantage in biopharmaceuticals.
A senior official in the Biden administration said that if the priority is saving lives, the United States “would want to examine the effect of a waiver on China and Russia before it goes into effect to ensure that ‘it is suitable for its purpose’.
A question-and-answer document produced by the administration and shared with industry representatives also recognizes concerns that sharing intellectual property could undermine the United States’ competitive advantage over China, told Reuters an industry source familiar with the talks.
Content of the document read to a Reuters reporter by an industry representative said the Biden administration believes it can address these concerns in the WTO negotiations, but did not specify how. The source added that some agencies in the Biden administration had differing views on how to address the concerns in negotiations which are expected to take months.
Spokesmen for the White House and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative did not comment immediately on the matter.
Spokesmen for Pfizer and Moderna did not respond to requests for comment on technology transfer issues, while a Novavax spokesperson referred Reuters to the company’s statement opposing the waiver on Friday. , that proposals to “weaken intellectual property protections would not allow equitable access to vaccines”.
Enforcing limits on the use of technology could be very difficult once transferred, some analysts say. Messenger RNA, used in COVID-19 vaccines by leaders Pfizer / BioNTech and Moderna, is a newly developed biotechnology that promises treatments far beyond vaccines.
China and Russia have their own vaccines that don’t use this biotechnology.
“It took Pfizer and Moderna years and years of research to develop these vaccines,” said Gary Locke, former US Ambassador to China and US Secretary of Commerce. “China, Russia, India, South Africa and others want access to it. Their intention is to get the underlying know-how so that they can use it to develop other vaccines, ”Locke said.
Chinese company Fosun Pharma has reached an agreement with BioNTech on the development of COVID-19 vaccine products, which would potentially give it access to some of the technology.
China has big ambitions for its pharmaceutical industry and is already developing its own mRNA vaccine.
Patents themselves are publicly available, noted James Pooley, intellectual property lawyer and former deputy director general of the United Nations World Intellectual Property Organization. But trade secrets developed by Pfizer / BioNTech, Moderna and others, “cookbooks” on manufacturing processes such as temperature and growing conditions, have not been made public. This can ultimately be a double problem for negotiators. Before protecting knowledge, US officials should guarantee access.
These companies should be persuaded to come to the negotiating table to give up these trade secrets.
“What happens when it turns out that the United States cannot actually provide the information essential to the implementation of inventions?” Pooley asked. “This will be seen as yet another failure of the United States and other rich countries to keep their promises.”
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