Reviews | Biden’s silence on an intellectual property waiver speaks volumes
Just over a year ago, on May 5, 2021, the Biden administration pledged to support “waiver of intellectual property protections for Covid-19 vaccines” at the World Trade Organization ( WTO), to expand global access to cheaper, generic versions of vaccines.
Efforts to suspend intellectual property rules at the WTO were notably absent from the White House summit fact sheet.
At the second global summit on Covid-19 on May 12, co-hosted by the United States, Belize, Germany, Indonesia and Senegal, a key objective was “to accelerate collective efforts to shoot it”. Yet a group of senior U.S. officials — President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, USAID Administrator Samantha Power and Secretary of State Antony Blinken — failed to mention the effort. WTO in their public remarks.
At the first global Covid-19 summit, which took place last September, the administration mentioned the need for a waiver on aspects of trade-related intellectual property rights (TRIPS) for vaccines like the one of his main takeaways. This time, efforts to suspend intellectual property rules at the WTO were notably absent from the White House summit fact sheet.
The omission at this second summit angered some public health activists. “Without addressing all of the barriers to sharing technology across the globe, the summit ends up being about charity (which remains woefully insufficient) instead of the justice we need to see,” Melinda St. Louis, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, which monitors corporate power, told In These Times in an email.
Relatively early in the pandemic, in October 2020, India and South Africa proposed that the WTO suspend key intellectual property rules related to Covid-19 vaccines, tests and treatments, so that countries in the South can expand vaccine manufacturing to meet global demand. Yet that proposal has been stalled by European Union opposition and the Biden administration’s lack of aggressive action, despite the administration’s May 2021 commitment.
A new compromise agreement is currently circulating in the TRIPS Council, the body that governs intellectual property rules. But campaigners have called the text potentially more harmful than helpful, as it excludes testing and diagnostics, cuts off countries like China and all “developed” countries, and introduces new barriers to generic production. The United States and the European Union played a role in crafting some of the text’s most damaging provisions.
Prior to the Covid-19 World Summit, public health groups had called on Biden to reject the circulating text and adopt a full intellectual property waiver (commonly known as the TRIPS waiver). In a May 9 letter, more than 170 U.S.-based social justice, labor and interfaith organizations made the request, saying, “We need every tool we can to overcome barriers and improve equitable access to Covid-19 medical products.”
The stakes are high amid troubling global inequalities in access to Covid-19 vaccines, tests and treatments. Africa lags far behind the rest of the world in vaccination, with only 21.5% of its population having received a dose. This compares to 79% in the United States and Canada. According to a recent estimate by the World Health Organization, almost 15 million people died as a direct result of Covid-19, or due to its deterioration of public health systems between January 2020 and December 2021, a number which is more than double the official toll.
US Trade Representative Katherine Tai is currently consulting with various parties and organizations on the text of an intellectual property agreement. This could, in part, explain the silence of senior officials. Yet other countries also considering the text have used their platforms to speak out in favor of a strong waiver.
“We continue to advocate for a waiver of the TRIPS Agreement at the WTO to improve global access to vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics so that the goal of having vaccines manufactured locally be achieved,” South African President Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa said, making a clear call for a larger, robust waiver for all Covid-19 health products, not just vaccines. This contrasts with the limited proposal currently circulating in the TRIPS Council.
“WTO rules, especially TRIPS, need to be more flexible,” said Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Biden made an announcement at the summit that promises to advance global health equity, if the president follows through. “Today, I am announcing that the United States will share essential Covid-19 technologies through the World Health Organization’s Covid-19 Technology Access Pool. We are making available health technologies owned to the United States government, including the stabilized spike protein that is used in many Covid-19 vaccines,” he said.
“The announcement is a shift toward sharing not just doses, but knowledge, which makes the difference between charity and justice,” Peter Maybarduk, director of Public Citizen’s Global Access to Medicines program, said in a statement. hurry. “This path, if pursued seriously, can improve resilience to future pandemics and bring some justice in a terribly unjust time.”
Still, the lack of discussion of any TRIPS waivers among senior Biden officials at the summit remains a concern for advocates. Countries in the Global South have considerable capacity to start making mRNA vaccines, but facilities lie idle because companies like Pfizer and Moderna won’t share recipes, copyrights and technical know-how.
“This Covid-19 Global Summit would have been a great opportunity for the Biden administration to recommit to a full TRIPS waiver and ensure it covers vaccines, testing and treatment, especially since talks have been derailed by European Union intransigence,” said St. Louis of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch.
“A year has passed since President Biden announced his support and, in the absence of strong American leadership, the WTO has yet to grant this important waiver.”
Josh Mei contributed research for this report.