US supports TRIPS waiver for Covid-19 vaccines

United States Trade Representative Katherine Tai testifies before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on April 28, 2021 in Washington DC, US .Credit: Sarah Silbiger - Pool via CNP

The Joe Biden-led administration has agreed to temporarily waive intellectual property (IP) restrictions for Covid-19 vaccines at the World Trade Organization (WTO), but this is merely a step towards a long-drawn-out waiver process ahead.

On Wednesday United States (US) trade representative Katherine Tai announced the administration's position on a temporary IP waiver in a statement.

“This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures," she said. "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."

Easing up global trade rules could enable more countries to produce life-saving vaccines, speeding up inoculation drives worldwide.

India and South Africa first put forward the proposal in November 2020 to waive certain provisions of the WTO's Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS).

However wealthier nations like the US, United Kingdom as well as the European Union (EU) were against the TRIPS waiver proposal, stating it would stifle innovation of pharmaceutical companies by taking away the incentive to make an investment in research and development.

Although the Biden administration agreed to support the waiver, this does not mean the US pharmaceutical companies would give away vaccine recipes to other countries. Moreover, the WTO consensus-based organization cannot move forward until all members agree to it.

“In terms of how soon the WTO can deliver – that literally depends on the WTO members, collectively, being able to deliver. I am the first one to admit that what we are leaning into is a process that is not going to be easy,” Tai Said.

“The EU is ready to discuss any proposal that addresses the crisis in an effective and pragmatic manner,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told a virtual conference on Thursday. “And that’s why we are ready to discuss how the U.S. proposal for a waiver on IP protection for Covid vaccines could help achieve that objective.”

Still, World Health Organization chief, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus welcomed the commitment from the US.

“This is a monumental moment in the fight against COVID-19. The commitment by the President of the United States Joe Biden and Ambassador Katherine Tai, the US Trade Representative, to support the waiver of IP protections on vaccines is a powerful example of American leadership to address global health challenges,” said Ghebreyesus.

“I commend the United States on its historic decision for vaccine equity and prioritizing the well-being of all people everywhere at a critical time. Now let's all move together swiftly, in solidarity, building on the ingenuity and commitment of scientists who produced life-saving Covid-19 vaccines.”