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U.S. President Joe Biden and German Chancellor Angela Merkel speak at a press conference

U.S. President Joe Biden and German Chancellor Angela Merkel address journalists at the chancellery in Berlin. (Photo: Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images)

Biden Urged to Pressure EU to End 'Outrageous' Opposition to Vaccine Patent Waiver

"As citizens of the world, we cannot sit and watch a repeat of the horror during the AIDS pandemic, when millions of people died while countries and companies refused to share life-saving antiretrovirals."

Jake Johnson

A diverse coalition of more than 130 labor, public health, and human rights organizations sent a letter Tuesday calling on U.S. President Joe Biden to pressure European nations to end their opposition to a temporary patent waiver for Covid-19 vaccines as the deadly virus ravages South America, Africa, and other regions that have struggled to obtain shots.

"It is outrageous that the European Union and a very few other WTO members continue to oppose a TRIPS waiver even as more transmissible variants are fueling new waves of death and devastation."
—Letter

While applauding Biden for throwing his support behind the proposed patent waiver last month, the coalition argued that the head of the world's most powerful nation has a responsibility to do much more than passively endorse such a crucial measure, which is backed by more than 100 World Trade Organization (WTO) member countries.

Because the WTO operates by consensus, a handful of wealthy nations in Europe—including Germany, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom—have been able to prevent approval of the patent waiver, which would help clear the way for manufacturers around the world to produce generic vaccines. Bucking other European Union member nations and the European Commission, France and Spain have joined the U.S. in supporting the waiver.

"It is outrageous that the European Union and a very few other WTO members continue to oppose a TRIPS waiver even as more transmissible variants are fueling new waves of death and devastation raging through India, Brazil, Nepal, Vietnam, and additional countries," reads the letter, whose signatories include the Citizens Trade Campaign, Amnesty International, and Doctors Without Borders.

"We respectfully request that the U.S. government engage all possible efforts to persuade waiver-opposing WTO member countries to engage in the text-based negotiations in good faith and agree on a timely and effective waiver," the letter continues. "As citizens of the world, we cannot sit and watch a repeat of the horror during the AIDS pandemic, when millions of people died while countries and companies refused to share life-saving antiretrovirals. We are morally obliged to make the TRIPS waiver happen as soon as possible."

The coalition's letter came a day after the E.U. leadership reiterated its opposition to waiving patents for coronavirus vaccines and argued that WTO member nations should continue operating under the existing legal framework, which critics say is artificially limiting global vaccine supply.

At the G7 summit in the U.K. earlier this month, rich nations pledged to donate more than 600 million coronavirus vaccine doses to poor countries over the next year—a far cry from the 11 billion doses  that the World Health Organization says will be needed to vaccinate 70% of the global population.

On Thursday, public health campaigners are planning to rally at the E.U. delegation's U.S. headquarters in Washington, D.C. to demand that the remaining European holdouts stop obstructing the patent waiver.

"The European Commission's support for 'more-of-the-same' reliance on Big Pharma to somehow close the massive gap between supply and the 10-15 billion doses needed has proved to be a failure," the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, which helped organize the rally, said in a press release Tuesday.

"That's why Germany, the European Commission, and the U.K. are isolated as the emergency Covid WTO waiver gains ever more support," added Public Citizen, a signatory to the progressive coalition's letter to Biden.

Read the full letter:

Dear President Biden:

We commend you for putting the United States on the right side of history by announcing support for the temporary Covid-19 emergency waiver of some World Trade Organization (WTO) intellectual property monopolies so we can end the pandemic's death and economic devastation as speedily as possible. Reversing Donald Trump's self-defeating blockage of WTO negotiations for a waiver of pharmaceutical monopolies under the Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) elevates the United States as a global leader with a mission to save lives and restore livelihoods.

Congratulations on the speed with which you made vaccines available to the U.S. public. Keeping Americans safe from Covid-19 and revitalizing the American economy to build back better relies on people worldwide having access to Covid-19 vaccines, as well as diagnostic tests, treatments, personal protective equipment, and other Covid-19 specific health as quickly as possible. The temporary WTO TRIPS waiver is key to that mission. It is also critical to saving millions of lives globally.

It is outrageous that the European Union and a very few other WTO members continue to oppose a TRIPS waiver even as more transmissible variants are fueling new waves of death and devastation raging through India, Brazil, Nepal, Vietnam and additional countries. We respectfully request that the U.S. government engage all possible efforts to persuade waiver-opposing WTO member countries to engage in the text-based negotiations in good faith and agree on a timely and effective waiver.

We the undersigned organizations respectfully urge you to speedily secure a waiver that is:

  • Comprehensive: The U.S. government must secure swift adoption of a temporary waiver of the patent, copyright, industrial design and undisclosed data rules of the WTO's TRIPS Agreement with respect to Covid-19-related medical products. The scope of the waiver must extend beyond vaccines to also cover the diagnostic tests needed to detect outbreaks and variants; the treatments, ventilators and other medical devices necessary to shorten lockdowns and save the lives of the millions who will contract Covid-19 before sufficient vaccine doses can be made and the materials, components, means and methods of manufacturing such goods.
  • Swift: The WTO Director General’s December 2021 deadline for a final waiver text is far too late to meet the urgency of the pandemic, which requires agreement on a waiver in a matter of weeks, not months.
  • Long-lasting: A waiver must be of sufficient duration to incentivize and sustain increases in manufacturing capacity for and output of medical goods to prevent, contain or treat Covid-19, taking into consideration that the pandemic may yet escape current vaccines. We support the waiver sponsors' proposal that the initial waiver last three years and be regularly reviewed thereafter, particularly given uncertainties around variants, the need for boosters, and what levels of immunization may be needed.

Current global production capacity of Covid-19 vaccines, medicines, and diagnostic tests cannot come close to meeting global needs to detect, treat, prevent, or contain Covid-19. Absent significant increases in vaccine production, many in developing nations will not have access to vaccines until 2024. This lag would mean more deaths and the greater chances for development of new variants that can undermine vaccines' achievements to date.

Every country should have the right to develop and make their own vaccines free from the worry that they and their suppliers would be sued by IP holders. To date, vaccine intellectual property rightsholders have refused to issue open licenses under transparent and accountable terms and conditions, and transfer technology fully to and negotiate payment terms with qualified manufacturers in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, creating supply shortages and production bottlenecks and prohibiting urgently needed production of doses worldwide. The worst global health crisis in a century has resulted in at least 3.5 million deaths worldwide and is conservatively estimated to cost the U.S. alone $16 trillion in economic losses, accompanied by yet greater global losses that have impoverished hundreds of millions of people worldwide.

We are in a race against time to save lives and prevent new variants. Absent a major increase in vaccines, treatments, diagnostic tests, ventilators, and other Covid-19-related medical supplies, the pandemic will rage largely unmitigated among a significant share of the world’s population. Covid-19 infections will increase, resulting in increased deaths and long-term damage to the health of millions of people, a dragging blow to the global economy and a risk that vaccine-resistant variants will put the world back on lockdown and evade immunity for those previously infected and/or vaccinated. The long-term impact on people’s health and the world’s health system would be unprecedented.

To most quickly translate enactment of a temporary Covid-19 emergency TRIPS waiver into billions of vaccine shots in arms, the U.S. government additionally must deploy tools to rapidly promote technology transfer and know-how sharing, and leverage existing legal authorities. To protect U.S. health, economic recovery and security, the United States should launch an ambitious global vaccine manufacturing program to scale up production in the United States and, equally as important, in regional manufacturing centers around the world to produce and supply 8 billion more doses by repurposing existing facilities and building new capacity, including by allocating $2 billion in funds to capital expenditures to establish additional Covid-19 mRNA vaccine manufacturing lines and providing $23 billion in funding for raw materials, technology transfer and royalty costs to scale up production and shave years from the global pandemic. These additional initiatives can most speedily ensure the TRIPS waiver facilitates more production here and abroad of needed Covid-19 medicines.

Low- and middle-income countries are prepared to locally mass produce vaccines as soon as a TRIPS waiver is approved. The idea that these countries do not have the skills and capacity to roll this out is false and founded on racism and neocolonialism.

As U.S. Trade Representative Tai said when announcing the Biden-Harris administration's support for waiving WTO intellectual property barriers, the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures. As citizens of the world, we cannot sit and watch a repeat of the horror during the AIDS pandemic, when millions of people died while countries and companies refused to share life-saving antiretrovirals. We are morally obliged to make the TRIPS waiver happen as soon as possible. We look forward to working with you to meet this moment.


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