The Biden administration is facing increased pressure to fulfill its commitment to a global waiver on Covid-19 vaccine intellectual property protections as countries gear up for a renewed discussion on the proposal at a World Trade Organization meeting next week.
Over 3 million petition signatures are calling on the administration to take the lead in negotiations to secure a temporary WTO waiver on IP rights for Covid-19 vaccines, treatments, and tests, according to advocacy group Public Citizen.
“When the WTO Ministerial Conference kicks off, President Biden’s leadership will never be more essential to help end this pandemic,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) said at a Tuesday press briefing. “Failure to enact a waiver will only prolong the pandemic, leading to more deaths, illness, economic hardship, and social and political disruption around the world.”
Calls for a halt on IP protections began over a year ago at the WTO with a proposal by India and South Africa. The U.S. signaled its support of the idea of a waiver in May. Member countries have yet to agree on a formal waiver framework, and supporters say the Nov. 30 WTO meeting is the time to get a plan off the ground.
The petitions come amid a growing debate over whether IP is truly an obstacle to bolstering manufacturing capacity of Covid-19 treatments and vaccines across the globe.
Supporters of a waiver say dropping protections on pandemic-related innovations would lead to a surge in treatments and jabs overseas and reduce inequity in access. Opponents insist that knocking down protections removes incentives to innovate and that global manufacturers wouldn’t be able to easily start rolling out vaccines to meet the current global need.
“Without the proposed IP waiver in place, we have scaled up to 10 billion doses this month. By the end December, manufacturers in the US, EU, India and China will be on track to produce more than 12 billion doses, double that again by mid 2022,” the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations said in a statement to Bloomberg Law.
“The IP waiver proposals aim to address a production deficit, the vaccine scale up we have witnessed renders the IP proposals moot,” IFPMA said.
But Joia Mukherjee, chief medical officer at nonprofit Partners in Health, said in the Tuesday briefing, said “this is just a false argument, that somehow protecting patents is going to save the market for innovation.”
“We saw it with HIV, the idea that if we make these drugs available there will never again be innovation from pharma,” she said. “This is patently a lie, and we know that from our experience.”
Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), as well as leaders from the American Friends Service Committee and the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, was among the speakers joining Mukherjee and DeLauro in their call for action.
Avril Benoît, executive director of Doctors Without Borders, said teams are still trying to help patients with Covid-19 in areas lacking the proper tools for treatment.
In a pandemic, IP shouldn’t provide companies “total control over who gets to make Covid-19 vaccines, medicines and tests,” she said.