Tai says US backs WTO move to give poor countries vaccine access

Pharmaceutical manufacturers criticize the move

Tai said the U.S. would back a WTO waiver on intellectual property protections to give poor countries access to COVID-19 vaccines. (Bill O’Leary/Getty Images Pool Photo)
Tai said the U.S. would back a WTO waiver on intellectual property protections to give poor countries access to COVID-19 vaccines. (Bill O’Leary/Getty Images Pool Photo)
Posted May 5, 2021 at 5:29pm

U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai said Wednesday the Biden administration will back a proposal at the World Trade Organization to waive global intellectual property protections in a move to expand poor countries’ access to COVID-19 vaccines.

“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,” Tai said in a statement. “This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures.”

Tai said the U.S. will participate in negotiations on wording of a final version of the waiver originally proposed by India and South Africa. On Wednesday, backers of the proposed waiver said they are considering revisions and have asked that the committee of jurisdiction at the WTO call a meeting later this month that would be open to all members for discussion of a revised proposal. The discussion would precede the committee’s scheduled June meeting.

The Biden administration faced growing pressure from congressional Democrats and U.S. and international nonprofit groups to back an easing of protections that allow pharmaceutical companies to control licensing and production. On April 28, half the House Democratic Caucus signed and sent a letter to President Joe Biden calling on him to support the waiver as way to share medical technology.

However, the congressional letter said some changes would be necessary to the original proposal because of “unintended impacts it could have on unrelated copyright and other intellectual property that provide the basis for ongoing collectively bargained wage payments and corresponding contributions to health plans and retirement plans for workers throughout the country.”

Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee sent a letter to Tai Tuesday opposing the waiver.

Stephen J. Ubl, the president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, criticized the decision.

“This change in longstanding American policy will not save lives. It also flies in the face of President Biden’s stated policy of building up American infrastructure and creating jobs by handing over American innovations to countries looking to undermine our leadership in biomedical discovery," he said in a statement.

Tai warned that negotiations on the waiver are unlikely to move quickly because the WTO operates by consensus.   

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki made a similar point during her Wednesday briefing. She said the administration was conducting an internal review of the waiver as well as other actions it could take to provide more equitable access to vaccines because final action by the WTO could take months.

If the U.S. backs a proposal to waive all or parts of the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights agreement, Psaki said other member nations could still continue to object.  

“What we have under consideration now is the U.S. position. Our objective overall as we look at this decision is, how can we provide as much supply in the most cost-effective way to the global community,” Psaki said.

Psaki said the U.S. has pledged to provide 60 million doses of vaccine produced by AstraZeneca to other countries and that Pfizer also announced it will increase vaccine production to provide doses to more countries.

She noted that as a presidential candidate Biden had said intellectual property protections should not prevent access to COVID-19 vaccines once they were developed.

“Clearly as these decisions are made, we take intellectual property incredibly seriously. We also, though, are in the midst of a historic global pandemic which requires a range of creative solutions and we’re looking at it through that prism,” Psaki said.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, an organizer of a congressional campaign to convince the Biden administration to support a waiver, called Tai's announcement "a righteous decision." He said the U.S. action will aid the world. "With millions of lives on the line, it is no question that is the right thing to do not just for our country, but for the entire world,” said Blumenauer, D-Ore.

Tai, in her statement, also said the U.S. will continue to work outside the WTO to increase the pool of available vaccine doses.   

“As our vaccine supply for the American people is secured, the Administration will continue to ramp up its efforts — working with the private sector and all possible partners — to expand vaccine manufacturing and distribution. It will also work to increase the raw materials needed to produce those vaccines,” she said.

On Wednesday, the WTO approved a status report on the issue that said there is no broad agreement on the waiver.

According to a WTO meeting summary, delegations from 40 countries discussed the proposal, with supporters arguing a waiver was the best way to respond to the pandemic in countries without ready access to vaccines and opponents arguing that a waiver is unnecessary or could undo agreements already in place to boost supply.

Despite the organization’s reputation for slow action, WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said she thinks the pandemic will drive members to move quickly.

“We need to have a sense of urgency on how we approach this issue of response to COVID-19 because the world is watching,” Okonjo-Iweala said in a statement.

Ariel Cohen contributed to this report.