Senate Republicans are calling on top Biden administration officials to walk back support of an international plan to waive Covid-19 vaccine IP protections, calling the decision a “giveaway” to China and India that will only promote “vaccine nationalism.”
Countries like China that regularly steal U.S. intellectual property began urging the World Trade Organization to waive IP rights “almost immediately after these vaccines were proven to work,” Sens. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) wrote in a Wednesday letter to Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai.
“These nations are falsely claiming that granting such a waiver would speed the development of new vaccine capacity. Nothing could be further from the truth,” they said in the letter, obtained by Bloomberg Law. Senators Chuck Grassley (R-Neb.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), and Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) are among the letter’s backers, according to a Republican staffer.
The letter comes amid a heightening debate over whether the U.S.'s backing of a waiver would help expedite global vaccine manufacturing and distribution.
“It is not surprising that China, India, and South Africa want to steal our intellectual property and medical technology,” the senators wrote. “What is surprising is that an American president, especially one who claims to be a ‘jobs’ president, would force American companies to give their medical technology and manufacturing processes to foreign adversaries like China.”
A proposal before the WTO—set out by South Africa and India last year and supported by dozens of other countries—would waive obligations on the protection of IP rights for the duration of the pandemic.
‘America’s Interests Last’
Key to the debate is whether patents and other IP are an obstacle to global Covid-19 immunization.
Proponents of the waiver plan—which include some Democrats and nonprofits—say it’s a step in the right direction, and, taken with other steps like increased manufacturing capacity, could help with faster world vaccination. U.S. support could help get other countries on board with global distribution while spurring efforts to ramp up vaccine production capabilities in nations struggling to immunize their populations, proponents say.
Opponents say it’s bad for innovation and does little to get vaccines to those in need while opening the door to IP theft from competing countries. Among those in the latter camp are Tillis, who led a legislative effort to strengthen patent rights; former U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Director Andrei Iancu; and Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who has previously criticized the idea of waiving rights around Covid-19 vaccines.
“The reason why there are not enough vaccine doses at this time is simple: the supply chain lacks the technological capacity,” the letter said. “At best, all The President’s giveaway to China and India and others will do is to foster uncoordinated vaccine nationalism, as countries jump in to try to coerce technology transfer and manufacturing locally.”
Tai earlier this month announced the Biden administration’s support of the IP waiver, following pressure from a group of more than 100 House Democrats, led by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.). Piecemeal IP licensing agreements can’t keep pace with the scope and speed of the pandemic, while temporarily waiving rights could promote technology access and sharing for vaccine production without spurring trade sanctions, they argue.
House Republicans quickly followed suit, writing their own letter to Tai in opposition.
The senators in their letter posed a series of questions over the details and economic impact of waiving vaccine IP rights.
They called for a list and descriptions of all U.S. meetings with foreign officials about the waiver plan. They also asked if the Biden administration is considering waiving domestic IP enforcement, and whether support of the waiver is “premised on China, Russia, South Africa, India, or any other nation state supporting other foreign policy priorities of the Administration,” according to the letter.
“Simply put, the Biden Administration’s support for a TRIPS waiver puts America’s interests last and China’s interests first,” the senators said.