After facing pressure from advocates, President Joe Biden threw his weight behind waiving intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines on May 5, which could expand the life-saving medication to millions across the globe.
“This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures,” US Trade Representative Katherine Tai said in a statement. “The Administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections, but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for COVID-19 vaccines.”
The administration’s support does not necessarily mean the patents will be lifted right away, however, since the World Trade Organization will ultimately play a key role. HIV/AIDS organizers petitioned for the US to ease patent-related restrictions on doses of the medication, and Last October, officials from India and South Africa released a proposal asking the US to help developing nations that have faced shortages of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Tai said the US is seeking to expand vaccine manufacturing, distribution and increase raw materials needed to make the vaccine.
“Internationally, there is an urgent call for global solidarity and the unhindered global sharing of technology,” the WTO wrote in the proposal. “The waiver should continue until widespread vaccination is in place globally, and the majority of the world’s population has developed immunity.”
Meanwhile, HIV/AIDS advocacy groups are welcoming the announcement. ACT UP said this could open up paths for disenfranchised communities to receive the vaccine.
“We still have much work ahead of us to ensure global vaccine access and break pharma’s monopolies on taxpayer-funded vaccines, but this is a huge victory,” ACT UP tweeted. “We’re one step closer to creating a #PeoplesVaccine. #FreeTheVaccine.”
PrEP4All, a coalition advocating for widespread access to HIV prevention drugs, agreed and noted that this is just one of many ways the US can support nations disproportionately hit by COVID-19.
“This is the first step,” the group tweeted. “The @JoeBiden Administration now needs to scale up domestic and global public manufacturing and waive IP protections for all COVID technologies. But this is a huge start.”
The AIDS Healthcare Foundation, a global HIV/AIDS group, is also welcoming the administration’s move after calling on Biden to take a side on this issue.
“This is a decision of momentous significance for billions of people around the world. We salute President Biden for taking a resolutely principled position in favor of waiving COVID-19 vaccine patents,” Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, said in a written statement. “The decision puts the health of people above the profit-driven interests of pharmaceutical companies, and it will have an immediate impact on the negotiations at the WTO. Once we clear the patent hurdle, countries need to quickly get on with the job of ramping up vaccine production. We must vaccinate our world to defeat COVID-19!”
The administration is already facing heat from the pharmaceutical industry. In a statement, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) president and CEO Stephen J. Ubl disapproved of the president’s actions, claiming that it would lead to “counterfeit vaccines” and “weaken already strained supply chains.”
The AIDS Healthcare Foundation drew parallels to HIV/AIDS crisis and the barriers to treatment.
“At the start of the AIDS pandemic, the world waited more than 10 years to get access to patents for antiretroviral medicines to treat HIV,” the AIDS Healthcare Foundation said in a written statement ahead of the president’s announcement. “We cannot afford to make the same mistake with COVID-19 today.”