In a significant move that may help middle and low-income countries struggling with Covid-19, the US government on Wednesday said it would support waiving off intellectual property protections for Covid-19 vaccines in an effort to speed the end of the pandemic. Once the patents are lifted, any company which possesses the required technology and infrastructure would be able to produce vaccines against Covid-19.
For India, the US government’s move marks a significant success of its international diplomacy as it was India, along with South Africa and several other countries, who had in October 2020 laid a proposal before the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to temporarily waive anti-Covid vaccine patents to boost its supply. However, the Indian government is yet to issue a formal statement on the step taken by the US.
World Health Organisation chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said this was a “monumental moment in the fight against Covid-19”. He further said the commitment of the Biden administration to support the waiver of IP protections on vaccines is a powerful example of American leadership to address global health challenges.
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GAVI, the global vaccine alliance, also welcomed the step, saying the US should “support the manufacturers to transfer not only IP but also know-how in a bid to urgently boost global production”.
One of the first reactions among nations came from the South African government. President Cyril Ramaphosa welcomed the position adopted by the US, saying it was an “important reinforcement of a campaign led by South Africa and India on behalf of emerging economies that face vaccine shortages and production challenges”.
“For countries that do not currently have manufacturing capacity on certain medical technologies, the waiver could open up more supply options and avoid countries being reliant on only one or two suppliers. Where supply capacity currently exists, it can be repurposed to Covid vaccine production and in this way improve the supply available to all nations,” the government said in a release.
France also joined the US in supporting an easing of patent on Covid vaccines. “I am very much in favour of opening up intellectual property. We must obviously make this vaccine a global public good,” French President Emmanuel Macron said.
Macron, however, also said the current priority should be to donate vaccine doses to places that do not have the required infrastructure to produce the vaccines.
Macron’s concerns were echoed by the European Union, the 27-nation bloc that includes France. EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said, “We are ready to discuss how the US proposal for waiver on intellectual property protection for Covid vaccines could help end the crisis. In the short run, however, we call upon all vaccine producing countries to allow exports and to avoid measures that disrupt supply chains.”
Germany, another member of the EU bloc, seemed more favourable to the US proposal. German Health Minister Jens Spahn said, “We expressly share the US president’s goal. Providing the whole world with vaccines is the only sustainable way out of this pandemic. We will not be safe until everyone in the world is safe.”
“There are some ideas on how we can make this happen. Above all, the further expansion of production facilities is crucial. In addition, the countries of the world where vaccine is produced must be prepared to export it to others. The EU is ready to do this in word and deed. We look forward to the US now being as well,” AP quoted her as saying.
According to AP, the UK government said it was “working with WTO members to resolve this issue” and was “in discussions with the US and WTO members to facilitate increased production and supply of Covid-19 vaccines”.
Australia and New Zealand also called the US proposal an important step in the fight against the global pandemic. Australian Trade Minister Dan Tehan said, “We welcome this positive development and look forward to working with the US and others to find solutions that boost the global rollout of Covid-19 vaccines. Close collaboration between governments and vaccine manufacturers will remain vital.”
New Zealand Trade Minister Damien O’Connor said, “New Zealand supports the waiver of IP protections on vaccines as an important part of our collective efforts to address the human catastrophe of the pandemic.
“We are also working in APEC, the WTO and other fora to address other elements of vaccine supply issues including through the supply chains that are limiting the availability of vaccines regionally and globally.”