Biden administration backs India-South Africa proposal of patent waiver for Covid-19 vaccines

Democratic lawmakers: “When the US taxpayers funded the investment in the research and development of the Covid-19 vaccines, it was not only to find a solution to the pandemic here at home, but also to crush the virus around the world”

By Geeta Goindi

Washington, DC, May 7, 2021 – The US has declared it will support a proposal jointly floated by India and South Africa at the WTO in October 2020 to temporarily waive intellectual property and patent rights on Covid-19 vaccines allowing countries to locally manufacture diagnostics, treatments and doses.

The initiative known as the TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) waiver has been in limbo due to the opposition of a handful of countries, most notably the United States, Canada, United Kingdom and Japan. On Wednesday, there was a major breakthrough!

Under mounting pressure from US lawmakers and much to the chagrin of pharmaceutical giants, President Joe Biden voiced his support for the proposal in remarks to reporters, followed by a formal statement from his top trade negotiator.

Pfizer to donate over $70 million worth of Covid-19 drugs to India

“This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures”, said US Trade Representative Katherine Tai. “The administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections, but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for COVID-19 vaccines”.

Tai pledged, “We will actively participate in text-based negotiations at the World Trade Organization (WTO) needed to make that happen. Those negotiations will take time given the consensus-based nature of the institution and the complexity of the issues involved”, she forewarned.

Welcoming the move by the US to support the initiative, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs said, in a statement, “We are hopeful that with a consensus-based approach, the waiver can be approved quickly at the WTO. The waiver is an important step for enabling rapid scaling up of manufacture and timely availability of affordable Covid-19 vaccines and essential medical products”.

The epicenter of the coronavirus has shifted to India which set another unenviable world record Thursday reporting 412,262 new cases and 3,980 deaths over a 24-hour period, though experts believe the numbers are much higher than the government data shows on account of poor infrastructure, human error and low testing levels. Total Covid-19 fatalities have crossed 230,000 and the cumulative number of cases is over the 21 million mark, pushing the country’s health-care system to the brink of collapse.

US lawmakers urge Biden to increase Covid-19 assistance to India

In the US House of Representatives, India Caucus co-chairs Brad Sherman (Democrat-California) and Steve Chabot (Republican-Ohio), and vice chairs Ro Khanna (Democrat-California) and Michael Waltz (Republican-Florida) dispatched a letter to Biden urging him to bolster US efforts to assist India as it battles an alarming second wave of Covid-19.

“We are watching a catastrophe unfold in India. Someone is dying of COVID every 4 minutes in New Delhi”, Khanna bemoaned in a press release. “The least we can do is give the world the tools to prevent more deaths. We must do our part to quell the virus anywhere and everywhere it persists. It is not enough to vaccinate every American. We need to ensure the world beats this thing. That’s why the India Caucus is asking President Biden to send more oxygen and other medical supplies to help India in the manufacturing of additional vaccines. There’s simply too much at stake”, warned the lawmaker.

The massive surge in infections in the second-most populous country in the world is causing trepidation about a possible rise of vaccine-resistant strains that could undermine the progress made in the US as well as impede a global recovery.

In the statement, 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”.

Pressure mounts on Biden administration to help India during catastrophic surge in coronavirus cases

On Capitol Hill, Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky (Democrat-Illinois) who led a group of 110 Democrats in sending a letter to Biden urging him to waive Covid-19 patents, applauded the administration’s announcement Wednesday together with her Democratic colleagues, Rosa DeLauro (Connecticut), Lloyd Doggett (Texas), Earl Blumenauer (Oregon), Angie Craig (Minnesota), Jesus Garcia (Illinois), Barbara Lee (California), Adriano Espaillat (New York) and Andy Levin (Michigan).

In a joint press release, the lawmakers said, “Today’s announcement is proof that as a nation, we care more about saving lives and helping poorer nations than we do about corporate greed and profits. When the US taxpayers funded the investment in the research and development of the Covid-19 vaccines, it was not only to find a solution to the pandemic here at home, but also to crush the virus around the world”.

The legislators warned, “Americans are endangered if a worldwide Covid-19 vaccine shortage continues to allow this highly contagious, rampant pandemic to spread a path of death and suffering around the globe. Much of the required vaccines should be manufactured abroad near those in greatest need using American technology”, they said noting, “The TRIPS waiver will allow sharing of the intellectual property required for vaccine manufacturing to get underway immediately”.

The lawmakers commended Biden for rising to the occasion and supporting the waiver, a bold move which will have an “immeasurable” global impact. “This is the right thing to do, and a moment to make every American proud”, they said.

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