On Wednesday, May 5, the U.S.'s Biden administration officially announced it supports waiving intellectual property (IP) protections for COVID-19 vaccines.
In the statement, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai explained the decision by citing that we are currently living through a "global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures."
Countries around the globe are struggling to produce enough vaccines quickly, and inoculate their people in time. The hope is that by waiving patent protections on the vaccines, more people will be vaccinated faster, and the spread of the virus will slow down significantly.
This point was made clear in the U.S.'s statement, in which Trade Representative Tai said "The Administration’s aim is to get as many safe and effective vaccines to as many people as fast as possible."
"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 continued.
The U.S. has enough doses that it's already agreed to send 60 million vaccine doses to other countries.
This is a monumental moment in the fight against #COVID19. The commitment by @POTUS Joe Biden & @USTradeRep @AmbassadorTai to support the waiver of IP protections on vaccines is a powerful example of 🇺🇸 leadership to address global health challenges. pic.twitter.com/3iBt3jfdEr— Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (@DrTedros) May 5, 2021
The announcement was welcomed with open arms by the WHO's Director General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who posted his full support of Biden's administration's decision on Twitter, and who had made his stance clear earlier in March when posting a call for COVID-19 vaccine patents worldwide to be waived on the WHO's website. Other global directors like John Nkengasong, the Africa CDC's Director, also took to Twitter to show their support for the U.S.'s decision.
What happens if pharmaceuticals share their vaccine production process?
Pharmaceuticals and companies producing COVID-19 vaccines would have to share their rights and knowledge of their vaccine production. However, these companies and others who are against this move cite a number of issues that may arise if IP protections are waived.
A report from Barron's points out the main opposing points to sharing IP, which include lower innovation, that they can share information between themselves alone and that they already are, quality can't be assured, there is no idle vaccine production capacity, and that waiving patents doesn't help increase vaccine production.
Each of these points can be contested, though, as they have been in the Barron's report.
Even if patents for COVID-19 vaccines are waived, it would take a while for the details to be hashed out, as there are a number of important conditions to consider, like the aforementioned quality control. Negotiations could take months before a solid waiver plan is put in place, and the World Trade Organization (WTO) requires all of its 164 members to reach a consensus, as Reuters explains.
This patent waiver had already been put forward to the WTO back in October by India and South Africa, which would allow countries to suspend their IP protections for COVID-19 products for the duration of the pandemic.
We'll have to sit tight to see what comes of this, but hopefully, it'll pave the way for more lives to be quickly saved.