President Biden threw his support behind a World Trade Organization proposal on Wednesday to waive intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines, clearing a hurdle for vaccine-strapped countries to manufacture their own vaccines even though the patents are privately held.
"This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures," U.S. trade representative Katherine Tai said in a statement. "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."
The pace of vaccinating against COVID-19 in the U.S. is slowing down. In some places, there are more vaccine doses than people who want them.
Meanwhile, India is now the epicenter of the pandemic, and just 2% of its population is fully vaccinated.
The WTO is considering a proposal to address that inequity, as India, South Africa and over 100 other nations advocate to waive IP rights for COVID-19 vaccines and medications, which could let manufacturers in other countries make their own.
The consequences of not passing the waiver are "staggering," Mustaqeem de Gama, South Africa's World Trade Organization counselor, told NPR — "not only on the level of the loss of human lives but also on the economic level."
"We believe that intellectual property rights constitute a very substantial barrier to ensure equitable access," he said. "We believe that if we could have a limited, targeted waiver to ensure that we can ramp up production in various parts of the world, we would go a long way to ensure that we address not only the prevention but also the treatment of COVID-19."
Previous to Wednesday's announcement, the U.S. was among several other wealthy nations — including the U.K., Canada and Japan — that resisted WTO negotiations about the proposal.
In response to the administration's support, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, a drug industry trade group, expressed strong opposition and argued that the move represents a break in long-standing U.S. policy over medical patents amid global inequities.
"In the midst of a deadly pandemic, the Biden Administration has taken an unprecedented step that will undermine our global response to the pandemic and compromise safety," a statement from PhRMA reads. "This decision will sow confusion between public and private partners, further weaken already strained supply chains and foster the proliferation of counterfeit vaccines."
The trade group added that the decision will compromise U.S. job creation and the country's place as a leader in biomedical innovation.
The battle mirrors the one during the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1990s, when drug companies warred with global health officials who sought to produce generic treatments. Drugmakers eventually retreated after former South African President Nelson Mandela accused the companies of using patents to profit from his country's health crisis.
The HIV crisis gave way to a precedent in relaxing patent restrictions: In 2001, the WTO added the Doha Declaration to its Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement to allow low-income nations to import and develop generic versions of patented medicines.
The head of the World Health Organization praised the Biden administration's intent to lift the proprietary limits on COVID-19 vaccines.
"This is a monumental moment in the fight against #COVID19," Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Twitter. "The commitment by @POTUS Joe Biden & @USTradeRep @AmbassadorTai to support the waiver of IP protections on vaccines is a powerful example of leadership to address global health challenges."