'A Transformative, Hopeful Event': Under Pressure, Biden Backs Covid-19 Vaccine Patent Waiver

Demonstrators hold a rally to "Free the Vaccine," calling on the U.S. to commit to a global coronavirus plan that includes sharing formulas with the world to help ensure that every nation has access to a vaccine, on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on May 5, 2021. Shortly after the rally kicked off, the Biden administration announced its support for a global waiver on patent protections for Covid-19 vaccines, and said it will negotiate the terms at the World Trade Organization. (Photo: Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images)

'A Transformative, Hopeful Event': Under Pressure, Biden Backs Covid-19 Vaccine Patent Waiver

"This has a real potential to help save lives, strengthen the economy, improve international relations, and eventually end this awful pandemic."

In the face of mounting international pressure, the Biden administration on Wednesday announced support for waiving intellectual property protections for Covid-19 vaccines--which campaigners welcomed as "a transformative, hopeful event" that has the potential to save lives around the world, especially in the Global South.

U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai announced the move as activists gathered in Washington, D.C. for a Rally for a People's Vaccine urging President Joe Biden to back a Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) waiver at the World Trade Organization (WTO) proposed by India and South Africa.

Members of the WTO met earlier Wednesday to continue discussions about waiving intellectual property protections for much-needed vaccines. Biden's support for the waiver is a major policy shift; up until now, the U.S. government was a key opponent of the proposal, introduced when his predecessor was still in office.

"This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures," Tai said in a statement. "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."

Tai added that the Biden administration will engage in negotiations at the WTO that "will take time given the consensus-based nature of the institution and the complexity of the issues involved" while emphasizing that the ultimate "aim is to get as many safe and effective vaccines to as many people as fast as possible."

"The Biden administration's decision to support waiving intellectual property restrictions on Covid-19 vaccines is a genuinely transformative event, one which reinforces that there is real reason to hope for a better future when the right people are in place in the federal government," said Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Revolving Door Project. "This one choice may save millions of lives."

Hauser particularly praised Tai "for handling the first big political conflict of her tenure with grace and professionalism, as the administration ultimately worked toward the right call." He added that her "ability to face down the well-funded and powerful pharmaceutical interests fighting against this waiver without fear shows that she was a perfect choice for this crucial job."

"Again, appointments matter. Personnel is policy," Hauser said. "We will closely watch the inevitable conflicts during the text-based negotiations at the World Trade Organization. But this initial decision is one which Americans and onlookers around the world should celebrate."

The announcement did spark celebrations worldwide.

"Biden's support for the TRIPS waiver is unquestionably the right thing to do for the world and the nation," declared Arthur Stamoulis, executive director of the Citizens Trade Campaign, which helped organize a 431-group letter in support of the waiver earlier this year. "More work is needed to make sure the waiver moves forward as effectively as possible, but this has a real potential to help save lives, strengthen the economy, improve international relations, and eventually end this awful pandemic."

"Covid vaccines were developed with broad public support, and everyone worldwide deserves access to them," Stamoulis added, expressing hope for speedy WTO negotiations. "Biden's willingness to support the waiver is a testament not only his character, but to the excellent work of the hundreds of organizations and millions of individuals who urged this to happen."

Tobita Chow, director of Justice is Global, a project of People's Action, also emphasized the vital role of public pressure in the development.

"We thank the tireless effort of grassroots organizers here in the U.S. and across the globe who rallied at the homes and offices of elected officials, held people's shareholder meetings in front of pharmaceutical companies, and took to the streets in support of global vaccine justice," Chow said.

"This result is a testament to the power of global solidarity," he added. "When people in the U.S. recognize our shared destiny with people across borders and oceans, we can work together to take on some of the most powerful corporate lobbies in the world and win."

Biden and Tai "recognized that Pharma's 'business as usual' is killing us," said Oxfam America president and CEO Abby Maxman, applauding "their willingness to pursue a new path that prioritizes public health over private profits."

Maxman agreed that the shift "is a testament to the widespread public movement calling for an end to vaccine monopolies. It is also a testament to an administration that listens and is willing to do whatever it takes to defeat Covid-19."

The U.K.-based group advocacy group Global Justice Now tweeted that "THIS IS HUGE," and said that "there can be no more excuses. The U.K., E.U., and all governments blocking a #TRIPSwaiver must change course. It's time for a #PeoplesVaccine."

U.S. lawmakers including Reps. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) as well as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) also welcomed the news.

Along with praising the administration's move, Jamil Dakwar, director of the ACLU's Human Rights Program, explained why the waiver is so necessary.

"Vaccine distribution is deeply inequitable at home, but even more so abroad," he said. "One in four people in high income countries have received a vaccine dose; but just one in 500 people in lower income countries have received a dose. This extremely slow and inequitable distribution has dire consequences for billions of people around the world."

Paul O'Brien, executive director of Amnesty International USA, also commended Biden for reversing the prior administration's position on the waiver and making clear "that the U.S. prioritizes people's lives over pharmaceutical company profits," while also urging the president to go even further to save lives.

Specifically, he called for promoting multilateral efforts to scale up production of health products through the World Health Organization's Covid-19 Technology Access Pool "to lead the global fight to eradicate the pandemic and to ensure that all people, regardless of where they live, are given their fair shot at access to the vaccine."

"Now let's make sure U.S. support includes waiving IP on equipment and inputs needed for vaccines, and waiving IP on diagnostics and medicines, as well as on copyrights on N95 masks, ventilators, etc., for resolving the heinous pandemic of Covid-19," said Deborah James, the Center for Economic and Policy Research's director of international programs and coordinator of the Our World Is Not For Sale Network.

Public Citizen called on the U.S. government to invest $25 billion in vaccine production for low- and middle-income countries.

"It will be critical that U.S. engagement in WTO negotiations leads to the fastest possible agreement on a waiver text that encompasses Covid-19 vaccines and diagnostic tests to prevent virus spread and treatments to save the lives," added Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, in a statement.

"By fighting for the rest of the world to have access to vaccines as we have in the U.S.," she said, "the Biden administration is recognizing that 'no one is safe until we are all vaccinated' is more than a slogan, given Covid-19 outbreaks anyplace could hatch vaccine-resistant variants that sweep the world."

While highlighting that the waiver decision "has the potential to help save countless lives and end this crisis on a global scale," Chow of Justice is Global said that "we look forward to further action to scale up vaccine production and distribution as quickly as possible to ensure that countries around the world, and especially those in the Global South, have equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines."

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