In Major Turnaround, US Announces Support for IP Waiver of Covid Vaccines

USTR logoLate last night, the new US Trade Representative Katherine Tai, announced that the Biden-Harris administration is now supporting the waiver of IP protections for Covid-19 Vaccines. The short statement is available here and I reproduce it in full below:

United States Trade Representative Katherine Tai today released a statement announcing the Biden-Harris Administration’s support for waiving intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines.

“This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures.  The Administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections, but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for COVID-19 vaccines. We will actively participate in text-based negotiations at the World Trade Organization (WTO) needed to make that happen. Those negotiations will take time given the consensus-based nature of the institution and the complexity of the issues involved.

“The Administration’s aim is to get as many safe and effective vaccines to as many people as fast as possible.  As our vaccine supply for the American people is secured, the Administration will continue to ramp up its efforts – working with the private sector and all possible partners – to expand vaccine manufacturing and distribution.  It will also work to increase the raw materials needed to produce those vaccines.”

This is a remarkable turnaround from the US’ earlier position, as Praharsh has described in some of his earlier posts. This announcement also comes about a week after USTR held meetings with Pfizer and AstraZeneca on this issue. WTO members are currently in a 2 day meeting session discussing the TRIPS IP Waiver proposal by India and South Africa, after earlier efforts at reaching a consensus failed.

However, for now, one thing to be noted is that the statement above does not refer directly to the proposed TRIPS Waiver (See earlier posts here and here for a breakdown of the waiver). In fact, as readers will remember, the proposed TRIPS waiver is much wider than vaccines, so it is to be seen whether the US position is now only supporting IP waiver of the vaccines, or whether it is supporting the TRIPS IP Waiver proposal put forth by India and South Africa. If it is only of the vaccines – then a much larger issue of tech transfer, know-how, tacit knowledge, manufacturing capacity etc will still be a huge barrier to any meaningful progress on the vaccine front – unless the IP holders voluntarily share this knowledge. Forced technology transfer is another possibility but one that may not yield much result but will certainly be aggressively pushed back against. If on the other hand, the US is actually supporting India and South Africa’s IP Waiver proposal, then there may be more progress on production of covid treatment drugs and related necessary equipment, etc, even as the vaccines take time to slowly roll out.

Meanwhile, in what may be the result of some behind the scenes negotiations, India and South Africa have said that they will be modifying their initial proposal and will be submitting the revised version soon, perhaps with a sunset clause more explicitly mentioned. We will be putting out a more analytical post on these issues once there is some clarity on what the ‘text-based negotiations’ are that US is referring to. Meanwhile, I encourage readers to check out the very interesting panel discussion hosted by Yogesh Pai, NLU Delhi last night, that discussed several of these issues, just a few hours before this announcement (panel details here, video here,)

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