May 7, 2021 -- The Biden administration has come out in favor of loosening patent and intellectual property protections on COVID-19 vaccines to increase vaccine supply availability around the world.

The administration has been pressured to take that stance by some sections of the Democratic Party and global leaders, The New York Times reported. COVID-19 cases are rising rapidly in India, Brazil, and other nations, even while the United States appears to be bringing the virus under control with a strong vaccination program.

“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,” Katherine Tai, the United States trade representative, said in a Wednesday statement announcing the policy change. “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.”

The lifting of patent protections could allow drug companies in other nations access to the trade secrets about how COVID vaccines are made, the Times said. Up to now, the United States had resisted a move in the World Trade Organization to suspend some of these intellectual property protections. India and South Africa proposed the patent waiver last fall. Some Democrats support the idea.

Tai said the United States would take part in negotiations at the World Trade Organization, but a decision would “take time given the consensus-based nature of the institution and the complexity of the issues involved.”

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America attacked the decision, saying it “flies in the face of President Biden’s stated policy of building up American infrastructure and creating jobs by handing over American innovations to countries looking to undermine our leadership in biomedical discovery.”

“This decision will sow confusion between public and private partners, further weaken already strained supply chains and foster the proliferation of counterfeit vaccines, Stephen J. Ubl, president and chief executive officer of the organization, said in a statement.

The Times said the U.S. policy shift does not guarantee patent protections will be dropped. The European Union and the United Kingdom oppose the idea. Changes to international intellectual property rules require unanimous agreement in the World Trade Organization, the Times said.

Show Sources

The New York Times: “Taking ‘Extraordinary Measures,’ Biden Backs Suspending Patents on Vaccines.”

Office of the U.S. Trade Representative: “Statement from Ambassador Katherine Tai on the Covid-19 Trips Waiver.” 

PhRMA: “PhRMA Statement on WTO TRIPS Intellectual Property Waiver.”

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