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Nobel Laureates, Ex-World Leaders Urge Biden to Back WTO Waiver for Vaccines

Waiving World Trade Organization (WTO) intellectual property rules will speed up global vaccine access.

Protesters picket outside Johnson & Johnson offices during the "Global Day of Action for a People's Vaccine" on March 11, 2021, in Cape Town, South Africa.

Calling on U.S. President Joe Biden to prioritize human need over corporate greed, more than 170 Nobel laureates and former heads of state and government on Wednesday sent an open letter urging him to back a waiver of intellectual property rules so that developing nations can ramp up coronavirus vaccine production and pursue a people’s vaccine to help end a pandemic that has now claimed nearly three million lives.

Signers of the People’s Vaccine Alliance letter — who include former Irish President Mary Robinson, former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev, as well as Nobel laureates including Joseph Stiglitz, Mairead Maguire, and Jody Williams — say they are “gravely concerned by the very slow progress in scaling up global Covid-19 vaccine access and inoculation in low- and middle-income countries.”

“The world saw unprecedented development of safe and effective vaccines, in major part thanks to U.S. public investment,” the letter states. “We all welcome that vaccination rollout in the U.S. and many wealthier countries is bringing hope to their citizens. Yet for the majority of the world that same hope is yet to be seen. New waves of suffering are now rising across the globe. Our global economy cannot rebuild if it remains vulnerable to this virus.”

The letter continues:

But we are encouraged by news that your administration is considering a temporary waiver of World Trade Organization (WTO) intellectual property rules during the Covid-19 pandemic, as proposed by South Africa and India, and supported by more than 100 WTO member states and numerous health experts worldwide. A WTO waiver is a vital and necessary step to bringing an end to this pandemic. It must be combined with ensuring vaccine know-how and technology is shared openly.

This can be achieved through the World Health Organization Covid-19 Technology Access Pool, as your chief medical adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci, has called for. This will save lives and advance us towards global herd immunity. These actions would expand global manufacturing capacity, unhindered by industry monopolies that are driving the dire supply shortages blocking vaccine access.

Nine in 10 people in most poor countries may well go without a vaccine this year. At this pace, many nations will be left waiting until at least 2024 to achieve mass Covid-19 immunization, despite what the limited, while welcome, COVAX initiative is able to offer.

“With your leadership, we can ensure Covid-19 vaccine technology is shared with the world,” the letter to Biden concludes. “Supporting the emergency waiver of Covid-19-related intellectual property rules will give people around the globe a chance to wake up to a world free from the virus. We need a people’s vaccine.”

Letter signatory Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for co-discovering the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), said in a statement that “we will not end today’s global pandemic until rich countries — most especially the United States — stop blocking the ability of countries around the world to mass produce safe and effective vaccines.”

“Global health is on the line,” she added. “History is watching. I, with my fellow laureates and scientists across the globe, urge President Biden to do the right thing and to support the TRIPS waiver, insist on pharmaceutical corporations to share vaccine technologies with the world, and strategically invest in distributed production.”

Muhammad Yunus, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for establishing the micro-lending Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, said that “big pharmaceutical companies are setting the terms of the end of today’s pandemic — and the cost of allowing senseless monopolies is only more death and more people being pushed into poverty.”

“Only government action — not philanthropy, and not the private sector — can solve today’s unprecedented crisis,” added Yunus. “We together urge President Biden to stand on the right side of history — and ensure a vaccine is a global common good, free of intellectual property protections.”

The world leaders’ and Nobel laureates’ letter came on the same day that an international coalition of 250 civil society groups urged the head of the World Trade Organization to embrace a temporary suspension of coronavirus vaccine-related patents.