Health Care

Progressives up pressure on Biden to back COVID vaccine patent waiver

Progressives are increasing pressure on President Biden to support a waiver for COVID-19 vaccine patent protections at the World Trade Organization (WTO), arguing the move is crucial for helping lower-income countries fight the coronavirus.

The push features leading Democratic lawmakers and advocacy groups calling on Biden to take action, but the White House has not made clear its position.

“The Biden administration has an obligation to reverse the damage done by the Trump administration and reestablish our nation’s global reputation as a public health leader,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), head of the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who chairs the Senate Budget Committee, released a video calling on Biden to support the proposal.

“We need a people’s vaccine, not a profit vaccine,” Sanders says in the video.

The effort is fiercely opposed by the pharmaceutical industry, including key vaccine makers like Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca.

At issue is a proposal before the WTO, led by India and South Africa and backed by more than 50 other countries, to waive intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines. Proponents argue it would enable lower-income countries to ramp up their own manufacturing and help address severe shortages outside of the richest countries and benefit every country by cutting down on the ability of new variants to develop as the virus spreads.

Opponents argue patent protections are needed to incentivize innovations, like the record turnaround time in developing COVID-19 vaccines. More broadly, they say the waiver wouldn’t solve existing problems given that vaccines are complex to make and there are already voluntary efforts to take advantage of manufacturing capacity in other countries, without resorting to stripping patents.

A spokesman for the U.S. trade representative said the administration is “exploring every avenue to coordinate with our global partners and are evaluating the efficacy of this specific proposal by its true potential to save lives.”

But the Biden administration is facing pressure from some of its major allies, making the push hard to ignore.

In the House, DeLauro is leading the effort along with Democratic Reps. Jan Schakowsky (Ill.), Earl Blumenauer (Ore.) and Lloyd Doggett (Texas).

They are working on a letter to the administration in support of the waiver, with more than 60 lawmakers signing on so far.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has also privately expressed support for the waiver, Schakowsky said.

“I don’t usually speak for the Speaker, that’s for sure, but she has said so many times now that she has talked to the administration and she is fully in support of this waiver,” Schakowsky said during a press conference at the end of February. “There are so many voices now getting to the president that I still feel optimistic that the right thing can be done by the United States.”

Pelosi’s office declined to comment.

The effort is also backed by a wide array of outside groups, including Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders and Partners in Health.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization, also backed the idea in a Guardian op-ed this month.

“Of the 225m vaccine doses that have been administered so far, the vast majority have been in a handful of rich and vaccine-producing countries, while most low- and middle-income countries watch and wait,” he wrote.

Experts say Americans are at danger, too, if the virus continues to spread in other parts of the world, given that  new, dangerous variants can develop.

“Mindful of COVID variants from Brazil and South Africa, to stop this deadly virus, we need widespread immunization everywhere around the globe, not just in the wealthiest countries,” Doggett said.

Others, however, argue that while the waiver effort may be well-intentioned, it would not be effective.

“Because of the technical complexity of manufacturing coronavirus vaccines, waiving intellectual-property rights, by itself, would have little effect,” Rachel Silverman, a policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed last week. “It could even backfire, with companies using the move as an excuse to disengage from global access efforts.”

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America wrote a letter to Biden this month opposing the waiver, arguing it “would not speed up production” of vaccines.

“Intellectual property is the foundation for both the development and sharing of new technologies,” the group wrote. “Perhaps more than any other time in history, society is seeing and benefiting from the innovation supported by intellectual property.”

Instead, the industry points to voluntary licensing agreements that companies have entered into to share vaccines, such as AstraZeneca partnering with the Serum Institute of India to produce 1 billion vaccine doses for low- and middle-income countries.

The Biden administration has highlighted steps already taken by the U.S. to increase global vaccine access, like funding for Covax, the World Health Organization’s vaccine initiative, and an agreement announced with “Quad” countries — the U.S., Australia, Japan and India — to provide funding to help produce 1 billion vaccine doses.

While emphasizing those efforts, Adam Hodge, a U.S trade representative spokesman, also left the door open to supporting the waiver.

“The top priority of the United States is saving lives and ending the pandemic in the United States and around the world,” he said. “This includes investing in COVAX and working with partners, as we announced with the Quad, to surge vaccine production and delivery.  As part of rebuilding our alliances, we are exploring every avenue to coordinate with our global partners and are evaluating the efficacy of this specific proposal by its true potential to save lives.”

The administration is engaged in “detailed technical discussions about the merits of the proposal” with both developed and developing countries, an administration official said.

The members of Congress pushing for the waiver say they have not received a clear response from the White House. Part of the issue is that U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai was only confirmed last week.

“We have not gotten like a flat no,” Schakowsky said in an interview. But, she added, “we have not seen any movement.”

Blumenauer said he plans to speak with Tai about the issue.

“I think they’re being cautious,” he said. “There are lots of moving pieces and they need cooperation with the industry, with the various companies.”

But backers say they’re not giving up.

“We’re going to keep at it and keep at it and keep at it,” DeLauro said.

Tags Bernie Sanders Earl Blumenauer Jan Schakowsky Joe Biden Joe Biden Katherine Tai Lloyd Doggett Nancy Pelosi Rosa DeLauro

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