The U.S. is facing sustained calls to end its opposition of a proposal to temporarily lift intellectual property rules for Covid-19 vaccines and related technology as soaring coronavirus cases ravage India and new reporting spotlights a debate within the Biden administration over whether to support the patent suspension effort to help tackle the global pandemic or prioritize Big Pharma’s interests.
At issue, as the Washington Post reported Friday, is a proposal India and South Africa submitted to the World Trade Organization (WTO) last October to suspend Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) rules on Covid-19 vaccines and treatments to boost manufacturing capacity. It’s now cosponsored by 60 nations and backed by over 100 countries as well as hundreds of U.S. and international civil society organizations, former world world leaders and Nobel laureates, and some U.S. lawmakers.
In addition to the U.S., other wealthy nations including the U.K. and Canada are blocking the proposal — which needs consensus to pass.
Asked Friday whether the U.S. would continue its opposition, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration has not yet confirmed its stance and said the White House’s “overall objective is to provide as much supply to the global community and do that in a cost-effective manner.”
— MSF Access Campaign (@MSF_access) April 30, 2021
According to the Post: “The debate has reignited decades-old tensions in global health, pitting such influential figures as Pope Francis, who backs the patent-waiver proposal, against philanthropist Bill Gates, who’s opposed. It has also challenged U.S. officials who have prioritized this nation’s coronavirus response but know that the virus’s continued spread and mutation overseas will eventually pose risks to Americans.”
White House chief medial adviser Anthony S. Fauci and U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai discussed the proposal last week, the Post reported, with Fauci indicating support for it and Tai considering it. She indicated an openness last month when she told a virtual WTO conference that “we have to consider what modifications and reforms to our trade rules might be necessary.”
She also got input on the matter from powerful philanthropist Bill Gates, the Post reported. Gates made clear Sunday that he’s opposed to lifting such patent protections.
In addition, the Post reported, “other officials in the Commerce Department and the coronavirus task force warn that waiving the patents could backfire, including by handing intellectual property to international rivals. They also say that allowing new manufacturers to compete for scarce vaccine ingredients and expertise could hinder existing production, and that donating doses to countries in need would be more efficient.”
But the chorus of outside voices urging wealthier nations to drop their opposition to the waiver is strong and swelling. It includes Fatima Hassan, who leads South Africa’s Health Justice Initiative and told the Post, “It’s really amazing to me that you have one of the most powerful countries in the world, and it can’t take on four CEOs.”
Other prominent voices calling on President Joe Biden to back the TRIPS waiver proposal include former Irish President and former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson.
“We have to be on the side of humanity and life saving in a crisis,” she told BBC News.
Last night our lead organiser @diarmaidmcd joined @HealthGAP’s @asia_ilse & @TheElders’ @MaryRobinsonCtr to demand @BorisJohnson, @POTUS and other rich countries stop blocking the #TRIPS waiver so we can break the monopolies & secure a #PeoplesVaccine.https://t.co/gppVaMA7Q2
— Just Treatment 🌈 (@JustTreatment) April 30, 2021
Oxfam Great Britain CEO Danny Sriskandarajah made the case for the patent waiver this week and put the need in the context of India’s current surge in Covid-19 cases — what he called “a tsunami.”
“We’re putting the interests of a few big pharmaceuticals above the interests of people around the world,” Sriskandarajah said on the BBC’s “Question Time. “No one is safe until everyone is safe and the best way to do that is to loosen the rules on who owns the rights to produce the vaccines.”
"We're putting the interests of a few big pharmaceuticals above the interests of people around the world… No one is safe until everyone is safe and the best way to do that is to losen the rules on who owns the rights to produce the vaccines"@dhnnjyn on #PeoplesVaccine is 🔥 https://t.co/PwDLoT8Nky
— Christian Hallum (@ChrHallum) April 30, 2021
India reported over 400,000 Covid-19 cases in a single day Friday — a global record. The case surge prompted the Biden administration to ban entry to the U.S. any non-U.S. citizens or permanent residents traveling from India.
Doctors Without Borders, which supports the TRIPS waiver, warned Friday that “the second wave of Covid-19 is reaching extremely alarming levels in India,” and “has devastated the healthcare system and overwhelmed frontline workers.”
Sharing the Post’s report, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) also addressed the current outbreak in India.
Warren tweeted that the “Covid-19 outbreak in India is a humanitarian crisis that threatens its 1.4 billion citizens, and billions more around the world. I’m urging President Biden — and our vaccine manufacturers — to use every tool possible to help with this crisis.”
As of Thursday, according to the New York Times, India had vaccinated just 1.8% of its population, and the country’s “major vaccine companies are struggling to increase production.”
In the U.S., by contrast, 39% of adults have been fully vaccinated.
Such a divide, say humanitarian aid and social justice organizations, must not be allowed to continue.
“Policymakers have to make a choice: do they support a #PeoplesVaccine to end vaccine apartheid, or do they work for big pharma?” Health GAP tweeted Friday. “The whole world is watching.”