The government of Joe Biden on Wednesday spoke in favor of waiving intellectual property protection for COVID-19 vaccines, a step forward in international efforts to suspend patent rules as the pandemic spreads in India and South America.
The United States was one of the main opponents of the World Trade Organization’s proposal to suspend intellectual property protection in an effort to increase vaccine production. However, President Biden has come under mounting pressure to support the proposal, including from many Democratic members of Congress.
US Trade Representative Catherine Tay announced the government’s stance in a statement on Wednesday afternoon.
“This is a global health crisis, and the exceptional circumstances of the Covid-19 epidemic call for exceptional measures to be taken,” he said. “The government strongly believes in protecting intellectual property, but it supports waiving that protection for COVID-19 vaccines in the service of ending this epidemic.”
Tai added that the United States will participate in the World Trade Organization negotiations on this issue, adding: “These negotiations will take time, given the nature of the institution based on consensus and the complexity of the issues at hand.”
Activists have been pushing in this direction, but they also said that the waiver will not increase the availability of vaccines in the world if it is not accompanied by a process called “technology transfer” in which patent holders give personnel and technical knowledge.
“It’s a start,” said Greg Gonsalves, an epidemiologist at Yale University and a veteran activist on the issue.
Earlier on Wednesday, WTO members held another round of discussions on a waiver of intellectual property protection. Further discussions are expected in the coming weeks as India and South Africa, which have proposed a waiver, prepare a revised plan for countries to consider.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Director-General of the World Trade Organization, urged members to continue negotiating the text of the plan.
“I am absolutely convinced that once we can sit in front of a real script, we’ll find a pragmatic way forward,” He said at a meeting The General Council of the organization.
Thomas Kaplan is a Washington-based political reporter. He previously covered Congress, the 2016 presidential campaign, and the New York state government. Embed a Tweet