Wednesday, April 24, 2024

US supports waiver on COVID-19 vaccine patents

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Washington – The United States has thrown its support behind a move at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to temporarily lift patent protections for coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccines.

Advocates of the move say it would increase global vaccine production, but drugs manufacturers argue it will not have the desired effect.

Critics say it strips financial rewards from cutting-edge drug developers.

The decision by US President Joe Biden comes amid pressure from Democrats in his party to remove patent protections.

In announcing the new policy, US Trade Representative Katherine Tai said that “extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures”.

Tai said the US would now embark on negotiations at the WTO to try to secure the waiver, but warned this could take time.

India and South Africa were the leading voices in a group of about 60 countries which for the last six months has been trying to get the patents on vaccines set aside.

One hundred of the WTO’s 164 states are said to be in favour, and a panel on intellectual property is expected to discuss the issue next month.

If approved, supporters say, the waiver would allow production of vaccines to be ramped up and provide more affordable doses for less wealthy countries.

The countries in favour of the move met with strong opposition from the previous US administration of Donald Trump, the United Kingdom and the European Union. Mr Biden had proposed a waiver during the 2020 presidential election campaign.

What is intellectual property?

Intellectual property describes creations, such as inventions, which are protected by patents, copyrights and trademarks. These prevent copying and allow the originator to be financially rewarded.

Patents give innovating firms a short-term monopoly on production to cover the costs of development and encourage investment.

Biotech firms argue that such protection has provided incentives to produce COVID vaccines in record times.

What would the waiver mean?

Many developing countries have argued that rules requiring countries to protect patents and other forms of intellectual property are an obstacle to increasing the production of vaccines and other products needed to tackle the pandemic.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the WHO, called the US decision “historic” and said it marked “a monumental moment in the fight against Covid-19”.

The medical NGO, MSF – Doctors Without Borders – said the move would “increase sufficient and timely access to these lifesaving medical tools as COVID-19 continues to ravage countries across the globe.”

Calls for a vaccine patent waiver come as lower income countries face acute vaccine shortages. (BBC)

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