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US backs patent waivers for Covid vax, but faces oppn at WTO

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United Nations, May 6, 2021 –
The US has backed the request by India and South Africa to the World Trade Organization (WTO) to waive Intellectual Property rights for Covid-19 vaccines but it has been met with oppostion from some members of the body.

US Trade Representative Katherine Tai announced the decision on Wednesday saying that President Joe Biden’s “administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections, but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for Covid-19 vaccines”.

But the long-awaited decision will not result in an immediate waiver as a consensus will be needed at the WTO and, in the meanwhile, the Biden administration will work to increase the raw materials supply for making the vaccines, she said.

“We will actively participate in text-based negotiations at the 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,” Tai said.

Speaking in Geneva at the start of the General Council meeting on Wednesday, WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said: “We need to have a sense of urgency on how we approach this issue of response to Covid-19 because the world is watching.”

At the meeting several countries voiced opposition to the waivers, while many also supported it, according to a news release from the organisation.

Last October, India and South Africa made the proposal for the waiver, officially known as the Temporary Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), for materials needed to fight the pandemic “until widespread vaccination is in place globally, and the majority of the world’s population has developed immunity”.

Since then, 60 WTO members, including Pakistan, have co-sponsored it.

Okonjo-Iweala said that she welcomed a recent move by the sponsors to submit a revised proposal.

“I am firmly convinced that once we can sit down with an actual text in front of us, we shall find a pragmatic way forward, acceptable to all sides that allow the kinds of answers that our developing country members are looking at with respect to vaccines, whilst at the same time looking at research and innovation and how to protect them,” she said.

A WTO statement said that over 40 delegations spoke at the General Council session on Wednesday and “supporters of the proposal were of the view that the current challenges posed by the pandemic can only be effectively addressed by waiving certain TRIPS obligations. Other delegations remained unconvinced about the necessity for a waiver at the international level, with some members arguing that a waiver might undermine ongoing collaborative efforts”.

Many industrialised European countries, including the UK and Switzerland, and some major pharmaceutical companies oppose the waiver seeing it as opening the doors to a broader weakening of intellectual property rights that could affect future innovation.

In her statement on backing the patent waiver, Tai said that while the negotiations take their time, “the 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 a” 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 added.

Indian-American House of Representatives member Ro Khanna welcomed the Biden administration’s decision, tweeting: “Thank you @POTUS for putting life & dignity over very powerful interests.”

The administration had to work its way around opposing forces to arrive at the decision on waivers.

A group of Democrats led by the progressive Senator Bernie Sanders urged Biden to “prioritise people over pharmaceutical company profits” and support the waiver.

Many domestic and international organisations, like Doctors Without Borders and the Union of Concerned Scientists, have also asked for the waiver on humanitarian grounds.

But a group of 12 Republican members of Congress wrote to Biden on Wednesday opposing the waiver asserting that it “would harm American innovation, technological leadership, and economic competitiveness”.

The International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE) that belongs to the powerful trade union backing Biden, American Federation of Labour-Congress of Industrial Organisations (AFL-CIO), has also come out against the waiver.

IFPTE President Paul Shearon wrote to Tai’s staff that the US should manufacture vaccines domestically to create jobs and preserve its lead in the technology.

He also raised doubts about the ability of other countries to make the vaccines.

He wrote that “letting first-time producers re-create the industrial capacity and know-how needed to ramp up a complex industrial process to global scale” may not work.

Bill Gates, the philanthropist who heads a foundation that works on global issues, has also opposed the waiver echoing a similar view questioning the ability of developing countries to maintain quality standards.

But Khanna said in his tweet, “Let’s be clear, this debate was never about quality control over manufacturing vaccines. It was about money andgreed. I was trolled repeatedly by people in my own party for calling on Biden to waive this.”

Biden’s spokesperson Jen Psaki posited a defence of the support for the waiver before it was announced when she responded at her briefing to a question about the objections.

“We take intellectual property incredibly seriously. And we also, though, are in the midst of a historic global pandemic, which requires a range of creative solutions. And we’re looking at it through that prism.” (Agency)

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