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U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about his administration's response to the Omicron variant at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland on December 2, 2021.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about his administration's response to the Omicron variant at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland on December 2, 2021. (Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

US Praised for Plan to Transfer Covid Tech to WHO

"This is a turn toward sharing not only doses, but knowledge, which is the difference between charity and justice," said one public health advocate.

Kenny Stancil

Public health advocates welcomed the Biden administration's announcement Thursday that the U.S. will share certain medical technologies used to produce Covid-19 tests, treatments, and vaccines with the World Health Organization as part of an effort to combat the global pandemic that continues to kill thousands of people each week.

"The immediate medical value of Thursday's announcement will depend on which NIH technologies are licensed."

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said Thursday that it will offer unspecified technologies being developed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to the WHO's Covid-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP) for licensing through the United Nations-backed Medicines Patent Pool (MPP), which experts say will empower generic manufacturers to boost the global supply of lifesaving diagnostics, drugs, and jabs.

After being urged to share coronavirus-related knowledge for nearly two years by justice campaigners around the globe, "HHS is stepping up to share medical technology with the world," Peter Maybarduk, director of Public Citizen's Access to Medicines program, said in a statement.

"Early in the pandemic, WHO and many developing countries put forward C-TAP as a vehicle for sharing medical technology, so that researchers and manufacturers could help make available to people everywhere tests, treatment, and vaccine technology, and ultimately, improve on those medical tools," said Maybarduk. "The world's people have traveled a brutally hard path since, characterized by extreme shortages and a global vaccine apartheid that has contributed to countless deaths."

To date, just 13% of people in low-income countries have received at least one Covid-19 vaccine shot, according to Our World in Data. On the African continent, nearly 82% of people have yet to receive a single dose. Researchers at Public Citizen have warned that Pfizer is poised to replicate this inequity by imposing intellectual property restrictions on its Paxlovid treatment.

With Thursday's announcement, said Maybarduk, HHS is taking steps "to help catalyze WHO's vision of a more equitable future by offering publicly owned technologies from NIH, the world's premier biomedical research institution."

Thanking NIH for "its offer of innovative therapeutics, vaccines, and diagnostic methods for Covid-19," WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement that the "voluntary sharing of technologies through nonexclusive agreements will not only help us put the pandemic behind us; it will also empower low- and middle-income countries to produce their own medical products and achieve equitable access."

However, Maybarduk stressed that "the immediate medical value of Thursday's announcement will depend on which NIH technologies are licensed." 

The Washington Post reported that senior NIH official Anthony Fauci "declined to detail which technologies would be made available for licensing by other countries, saying the plan's details were 'still being ironed out.'"

According to the newspaper:

The new policy is not intended to apply to the vaccines and therapeutics that have been developed by private companies and are currently in the U.S. market, according to three people familiar with the plan who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak with the news media.

The United States is not expected to share NIH-developed technology that was used by Moderna, the vaccine maker that worked closely with the U.S. government in its messenger RNA vaccine. Foreign countries and developers have long petitioned for access to Moderna's technology and know-how, saying that it would allow them to more quickly replicate their own versions of Moderna's vaccine.

As Maybarduk explained, "NIH and NIH-supported research have been critical to the development of leading medical advances including the world's most effective Covid vaccine, NIH-Moderna." However, he pointed out, "many NIH-owned technologies are early stage or comprise only part of a final medical product."

"Thursday's announcement is not a substitute for fully funding the global Covid response."

"To facilitate new production of today's vaccines," Maybarduk said, it would be necessary for HHS "to require pharmaceutical firms to license technology"—something the agency has not yet indicated it plans to do.

"Thursday's announcement is not a substitute for fully funding the global Covid response," Maybarduk emphasized. Referring to President Joe Biden's newly unveiled pandemic plan, he said that "we are heartened to see the White House finally has asked Congress to further fund the global fight... but dismayed that the $5 billion requested falls short of the minimum $17 billion needed."

Maybarduk called the move by HHS "a turn toward sharing not only doses, but knowledge, which is the difference between charity and justice."

"It is a trajectory which if pursued with seriousness of purpose can improve resilience to future pandemics and bring a measure of justice to a terribly unjust time," he said.

Noting that "the U.S. government is developing a pan-coronavirus vaccine, with hopes that it will prove effective against multiple variants," Maybarduk added that "Thursday's announcement forges a path for sharing this publicly owned technology with humanity, as well."


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