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A healthcare worker prepares to vaccinate teachers against Covid-19

Medical staff prepares to inoculate teachers with Moderna's Covid-19 vaccine on January 12, 2022. (Photo: Gerardo Vieyra/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

To Stop 'Endless Cycle of Death,' Biden Urged to Push Emergency Patent Waiver

"President Biden must exercise his current power and bulk up Covid vaccine, test, and treatment production abroad," more than 80 civil society groups write in a new letter.

Jake Johnson

More than 80 civil society organizations said Monday that in order to finally put a stop to the "endless cycle of death and disability" caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, U.S. President Joe Biden should demand that the World Trade Organization convene an emergency session and swiftly approve a suspension of coronavirus vaccine patents.

The coalition, led by the Trade Justice Education Fund, outlined its demands in a new letter to the White House ahead of Biden's second planned global vaccine summit next month—a virtual gathering that will come as billions of people in poor countries still lack access to lifesaving shots.

"Ongoing vaccine and treatment shortages in developing countries may be spawning new Covid variants."

"Nearly six months after your first global Covid-19 vaccine summit highlighted the importance of vaccinating at least 70% of the world's population by this fall, the world still has no plan to produce and equitably distribute the supplies needed to accomplish that goal," the coalition wrote to Biden. "We write to urge you to recognize the greater-than-ever need to dramatically increase the global production, affordability, and equitable distribution of Covid vaccines, tests, and treatments."

"Ongoing vaccine and treatment shortages in developing countries," the groups warned, "may be spawning new Covid variants that have created increased demand for boosters and potentially even new vaccine formulas."

Biden has repeatedly vowed to make the U.S. "the world's arsenal of vaccines," but the country has thus far delivered fewer than half of the 1.2 billion doses it has pledged to donate to low-income nations and—according to experts—failed to invest adequately in regional manufacturing efforts across the globe.

The Biden administration has also faced backlash from public health campaigners for taking a passive approach to WTO negotiations over a vaccine patent waiver proposed in October 2020 by India and South Africa. Biden expressed support for a patent waiver in May 2021, but the proposal has remained bottled up at the WTO due to opposition from major U.S. allies, including Germany and the United Kingdom.

In their letter Monday, the civil society groups urged Biden to partner with India and South Africa to issue a "joint temporary TRIPS waiver text... on Covid-19-related vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics."

The coalition also called on Biden to push the WTO General Council—the organization's highest decision-making body—to hold an emergency virtual session and "approve the waiver within 30 days."

"Only U.S. leadership in partnership with the waiver proposal's initial sponsors can break the WTO deadlock caused by ongoing European opposition," the coalition's letter states.

Proponents of a waiver argue that a temporary suspension of patent protections is needed to remove legal barriers that are currently inhibiting vaccine production in developing countries, including on the African continent, where more than 80% of the population has yet to receive a single coronavirus vaccine dose.

"The world is completely failing to reach the goals of getting the vaccine out to the people who need it," Tom Hart, president of the ONE Campaign, said last week. "We need a massive new infusion of vaccine distribution in the poorest parts of the world."

Experts have recently estimated that the world needs more than 20 billion additional vaccine doses to end the Omicron wave and prevent new variants from emerging.

"We are facing a global pandemic, a global pandemic that will stay with us for a long time," South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said Friday. "And all that has been asked for is that a TRIPS waiver should be done within a set period of time so as to enable those countries that do not have easy access to vaccines to have access to vaccines."

The patent waiver as crafted by South Africa and India would also apply to Covid-19 therapeutics such as the pill produced by Pfizer, which is currently building an exclusionary "patent wall" around the drug.

"We're doubling down on a two-tier world when it comes to Covid-19—rich, highly vaccinated nations with easy access to both preventive measures and treatments, and poorer nations trying to get by without either," Othoman Mellouk, a medicine access advocate with the International Treatment Preparedness Coalition, wrote in an op-ed for The Guardian on Sunday. "It's vital that we don't sleepwalk into giving corporations so much control over who gets to live and who gets to die, all balanced on what they deem an acceptable bottom line."

In addition to demanding that Biden work proactively to advance a patent waiver, the civil society coalition urged the president to:

  • Publicly share vaccine-making recipes that were developed with U.S. taxpayer support, and incentivize or compel pharmaceutical companies and other intellectual property holders to share vaccine, diagnostic, and medicine-making patent rights, data rights, and technical know-how with qualified producers around the world; and
  • Announce financial and other support for the use and expansion of vaccine, diagnostic, and treatment manufacturing capacity in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, as well as for vaccination as test-and-treatment programming in low- and middle-income countries.

"Two years into the pandemic and only about 1-in-10 people in low-income countries have received their first vaccine dose, leaving the world vulnerable to the next Covid variant," Arthur Stamoulis, executive director of the Trade Justice Education Fund, said in a statement Monday.

"President Biden must exercise his current power and bulk up Covid vaccine, test, and treatment production abroad," Stamoulis added, "so we can finally end this pandemic."

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