U.S. Says It Supports a Covid Vaccine Patent Waiver, But Document Reveals It Is Dragging Feet at WTO

Global health advocates say a patent waiver would ease access to Covid vaccines, but the U.S. declined to support as-is a proposal to greenlight the waiver, a summary of a September 14 WTO meeting shows.

Sarah Lazare

A member of staff uses a needle and a phial of Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine to prepare a dose at a vaccination health centre in Cardiff, South Wales' on December 8, 2020. JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images

On September 14, the United States declined to support as-is a proposal at the World Trade Organization (WTO), put forward by South Africa and India in October 2020, to suspend key intellectual property rules that relate to the Covid-19 vaccine. While the United States expressed frustration about lost momentum” around negotiations over the intellectual property waiver, global health advocates say they are disappointed that the Biden administration has declined to take an active role in pushing such negotiations forward.

The developments come despite the Biden’s administration’s much lauded pledge that it supports waiving intellectual property rules for Covid-19 vaccines. This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures,” U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai said on May 5. 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. We will actively participate in text-based negotiations at the World Trade Organization needed to make that happen.”

The developments were revealed in a summary of the meeting by Geneva-based trade diplomats that was obtained by In These Times. The September 14 discussion that the summary describes, billed as an informal meeting of the TRIPS Council, was not open to the press. The TRIPS Council is the body that oversees the WTO’s global intellectual property rules.

Falling short of supporting the South Africa-India proposal as it stands, New Zealand, Korea, United States and Brazil stressed the need to think out of the box to find a solution,” the summary states.

Almost a year ago, India and South Africa proposed that the global body suspend its enforcement of key patents for Covid-19 vaccines and treatments, in order to allow countries to produce generic treatments and expand vaccine access. The proposal has the support of over 100 countries, 100 Nobel laureates, and prominent human rights groups, including Doctors Without Borders, Human Rights Watch and Oxfam. The European Union, the United Kingdom and Switzerland remain opposed, and the United States was also blocking the proposal up until the Biden administration’s May announcement. Global health advocates say that the nearly year-long delay is a barrier to widening vaccine access as the pandemic rages.

Burcu Kilic, the research director of Public Citizen’s Access to Medicines program, told In These Times that the best outcome would have been for the United States to support the proposed waiver as it currently stands. Of course, the ideal is the U.S. supporting the proposal as-is,” she said.

Global activists have urged that, if the Biden administration is not going to throw its weight behind the India-South Africa proposal as it is presently worded, the United States, at the very least, must move quickly to negotiate over text. Any further delay, activists note, means more lives lost to Covid-19.

The summary did note that the United States says it wants a meaningful outcome. It states:

The United States took the floor to stress that the most important part of global efforts in fighting COVID-19 is increasing vaccine manufacturing capacity domestically and in other countries around the world. The US welcomed the clarification provided on the meetings held by members before the summer break with regards the revised or new proposals and said that moving towards text-based negotiations was a move in the right direction. 
However, the U.S. delegate went on saying that efforts by WTO members have lost momentum and forward progress has stalled in recent weeks, despite the fact that the urgency of the pandemic continues. With MC12 [12th Ministerial Conference] around the corner, the WTO needs to up its game to demonstrate its relevance in a time of global humanitarian and economic need. We believe that a way forward can and should be achieved through moving this effort beyond form and going into substance, the delegate said.

They are saying they are moving along and trying to push this forward, but they are not being very specific,” Sangeeta Shashikant of the Third World Network, a global research and advocacy organization, told In These Times. She went on to explain, It has been disappointing to see the U.S. has not taken a more active role in bringing the EU on board on the TRIPS waiver proposal, and they themselves have not engaged very actively in the discussion on the text as well.”

Global activists have demanded that the Biden administration press the European Union, particularly German Chancellor Angela Merkel, to stop blocking a patent waiver. There was no immediate indication in the September 14 summary that the Biden administration has taken up this call.

Shashikant did note, however, that the statements from the United States that discussions need to move forward could be a sign of progress, albeit limited. This is something more than what they’ve been saying before August,” she says. “[The U.S.] seems to be more active. Not much, but they’re saying a bit more than before.”

At the meeting, countries that support the proposal underscored its urgency. The summary states:

Welcoming Malaysia as the new co-sponsor of the waiver proposal, India emphasized that the majority of WTO members - except a handful - see the waiver as the best response to the current health crisis, as it would enable the temporary suspension of relevant TRIPS rules and would provide manufacturers around the world the freedom to operate and scale up production of vaccines, leading to more accessibility and affordability.

However, powerful countries remain key obstacles. The summary states, In opposing the waiver proposal, the European Union, the United Kingdom and Switzerland reiterated that supply bottlenecks and know-how transfer issues remain the main obstacles to ramping up production and fostering a more equitable access to vaccines and medicines.” 

The office of U.S. Trade Representative Tai didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

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Sarah Lazare is the editor of Workday Magazine and a contributing editor for In These Times. She tweets at @sarahlazare.

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