The Biden administration on Wednesday threw its support behind waiving intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines.
“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,” U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai said in a statement.
Ms. Tai said the administration will work with the World Trade Organization, which is meeting this week, to make it happen while cautioning that the process will take time.
Congressional Democrats had pressed President Biden to support granting such a waiver, saying it would help accelerate the distribution and supply of COVID-19 vaccines around the globe.
Major companies, including vaccine makers Pfizer, BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, have expressed concerns that such waivers could harm the safety of the vaccines.
During the 2020 campaign, Mr. Biden told activist Ady Barkan he would “absolutely, positively” support sharing vaccine technology with other countries and making sure patents didn’t prevent other countries from mass-producing vaccines.
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“This is the only humane thing in the world to do,” Mr. Biden had said.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said earlier Wednesday that the position still held.
“He also believes that there needs to be an internal policy process. That’s what’s been ongoing,” Ms. Psaki said.
More than 100 House Democrats urged Mr. Biden to support a waiver in a Tuesday letter. “Simply put, we must make vaccines, testing, and treatments available everywhere if we are going to crush the virus anywhere,” they said.
Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee said in a letter to Mr. Biden last month that waiving IP rights would only hamstring efforts to quickly and safely distribute vaccines.
“Simply put, the fight against COVID-19 has highlighted that robust IP systems work,” they said. “America’s strong IP infrastructure has facilitated rapid access to cutting-edge technologies to combat COVID-19, including diagnostics, treatments, and vaccines.”
India and South Africa proposed a waiver last October that would temporarily lift certain intellectual property rules tied to vaccines. The U.S., along with other countries such as Canada, Britain and Switzerland, had blocked those efforts.
The pharmaceutical lobby said the world had effective vaccine-sharing efforts in place.
“This decision will sow confusion between public and private partners, further weaken already strained supply chains and foster the proliferation of counterfeit vaccines,” Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) President and CEO Stephen J. Ubl said.