The COVID-19 Vaccine Patent Waiver Fight Is Far From Over

by Jeremy

Last Wednesday, the Biden administration’s announcement that it planned to support waiving intellectual property (IP) protections for COVID-19 vaccines prompted praise from global public health advocates and outcry from the pharmaceutical industry and corporate America more broadly.COVID

But the historical statement of support issued by U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai does not make the waiver a done deal. Even if successful, the availability of vaccines could vary significantly based on the final details of the release. 

The World Trade Organization requires unanimous consensus to proceed with discussing changes to intellectual property agreements and adopt those changes.

The United States’ declaration of support for a waiver merely unblocks a negotiation process at the WTO that the international body’s director-general, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, estimated could take until December

“The declaration of support for a waiver of intellectual property rights for vaccines by Ambassador Tai is momentous, but is only a first step,” said Asia Russell, executive director of Health GAP, an affordable medicines advocacy group founded to expand access to HIV treatments in low-income countries. “What comes next is that the U.S. must deliver on the substance of Ambassador Tai’s statement, not merely the letter.”

A business lobbyist involved in fighting the waiver confirmed to HuffPost that the pharmaceutical industry plans to try to stop the waiver’s adoption, or short of that, limit the policy’s scope as much as possible.

“This is a terrible precedent, a terrible precedent ― not just on COVID,” said the lobbyist, who asked for anonymity to speak freely. “But if the U.S. takes the position, that, ‘Hey, when the going gets tough, we’re going to waive IP,’ that’s tough.” 

Already, leaders of Germany and the European Union ― who jointly rank just behind the U.S. in terms of influence at the WTO ― have expressed skepticism of the waiver bordering on the opposition.

And the December limit on a resolution is a source of concern for Russell and her allies. They note that the WTO has been willing to reach agreements over urgent priorities over much shorter periods in the past. 

You can’t just open up the ‘Art of Cooking.’ You have to have Julia Child come into your kitchen.
Gregg Gonsalves, Yale School of Public Health

Finalizing negotiations

Referring to WTO director-general Okonjo-Iweala’s remarks, she continued, “The WTO leadership needs to slam on the gas, and that’s exactly what Ambassador Tai’s announcement should have enabled.”

Every day that passes without an agreement delays not only the legal freedom foreign companies need to mass-produce the vaccine but also the process of scaling up the manufacturing capacity to make the vaccines in developing countries, according to proponents of the vaccine IP waiver.

And even if a substantial waiver is implemented, global public health advocates see it as the first step in a three-part approach that must also include the transfer of technological know-how and the subsidization of industrial capacity in the developing world.

Gregg Gonsalves, an epidemiologist at the Yale School of Public Health, said releasing the intellectual property associated with vaccines but failing to include additional investments was like distributing copies of a cookbook without providing the tools or cooking know-how to make the dishes in the book.

“You can’t just open up the ‘Art of Cooking.’ You have to have Julia Child come into your kitchen,” he said. “This is the next battle. You don’t get to say, ‘We supported the TRIPS waiver. Didn’t you get what you wanted?’ No. We want vaccine doses and we want them before 2022.”

An employee works at a Pfizer pharmaceutical factory in Belgium in April. Big Pharma and its opponents agree that an IP waive

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