The U.S. government signaled on Wednesday that it would support a temporary waiver for intellectual property rights on COVID-19 vaccines, as advocated by the World Health Organization, despite the strong objections of the global pharmaceutical industry.
- “The extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures,” said Trade Representative Katherine Tai in a statement, signaling an about-face of the U.S. position that the head of the WHO called “a monumental moment in the fight against COVID-19.”
- The proposal, originally presented by India and South Africa within the World Trade Organization, aims at boosting vaccine production in developing countries, as the pandemic keeps spreading in large parts of the world.
- The pharmaceutical industry has argued that waiving patents wouldn’t address the current manufacturing bottlenecks that explain vaccine shortages, and that it could hand crucial sensitive technology and scientific secrets to countries like Russia or China.
- The European Union, along with the U.S., had been opposed to the idea so far, but European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Thursday that it was “ready to discuss” the U.S. proposal if it helps “address the crisis in an effective and pragmatic manner.”
The outlook: The need for unanimity among the WTO’s 164 member countries means it could take months before the proposal is adopted. By then it may become moot, if the richest nations and the industry find a way to organize the supply of COVID-19 vaccines to the big developing countries where the pandemic still rages.