Under pressure from a growing chorus of Democratic lawmakers and progressive advocacy groups, President Joe Biden is reportedly considering throwing U.S. support behind an India and South Africa-let effort to temporarily waive patent protections for coronavirus vaccines—a move that would allow for a massive scale-up of global production and distribution.
CNBC reported late last week that the White House is "weighing whether to suspend intellectual property protections for Covid-19 vaccines and treatments" but has yet to reach a final decision on the matter. For months, the U.S. has joined Canada, the United Kingdom, and several other rich countries in blocking the patent waiver proposal first introduced at the World Trade Organization (WTO) last year by South Africa and India.
"This needs to happen—and soon. Ensuring that the Covid-19 vaccine gets to everyone around the world, rich and poor, is both a matter of justice and equity and enlightened self-interest. Pandemics know no borders."
—Kenneth Zinn, National Nurses United
"This is good," Matt Duss, foreign policy adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), tweeted in response to news that Biden is considering the proposal. "Let's fast forward to the part where we do it."
While the waiver idea has won the backing of a supermajority of WTO member nations, the organization's consensus-based approach means a handful of powerful countries have the ability to thwart proposals that enjoy overwhelming international support.
Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Sanders, and dozens of other U.S. members of Congress have joined more than 400 grassroots advocacy organizations in urging Biden to end U.S. opposition to the waiver, which proponents say is necessary to distribute sufficient vaccine doses to developing countries.
"This needs to happen—and soon," said Kenneth Zinn, political director of National Nurses United. "Ensuring that the Covid-19 vaccine gets to everyone around the world, rich and poor, is both a matter of justice and equity and enlightened self-interest. Pandemics know no borders. None of us are safe until all of us are safe."
At present, many low-income nations are struggling to administer a single vaccine dose as rich nations hoard much of the existing supply, leading public health officials and other observers to warn that a system of "vaccine apartheid" is quickly emerging.
Schakowsky told The Hill last week that she is "optimistic" the Biden administration will ultimately support the waiver, noting that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) also backs the idea.
According to CNBC, "a senior aide said Pelosi supports the position of her members, who are in favor of issuing such a waiver, even on a temporary basis."
"The move would allow other countries to replicate existing vaccines," CNBC noted, an idea that has predictably drawn fervent opposition from the pharmaceutical industry, which is lobbying the Biden administration to continue rejecting the waiver proposal and leave vaccine production largely under the control of a small number of powerful corporations.
As Politico reported last week, "two companies—AstraZeneca and Novavax—have allowed manufacturers in India, Japan, and South Korea to produce their vaccines under voluntary licensing agreements. But the World Health Organization, which supports India and South Africa's waiver request, argues the terms of the voluntary license schemes being offered by some patent holders are not sufficient to address the current pandemic."
During a tour of an Aspen Pharmacare manufacturing facility in Gqeberha on Monday, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said that "vaccines must be treated as public goods available at affordable prices, available for all."
"It is important for us as Africans that as we deal with this pandemic, we are not left behind," Ramaphosa continued. "Vaccine apartheid must come to an end."