Democratic senators call on Biden to support waiving vaccine patents

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)
Greg Nash

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and nine Democratic senators are calling on President Biden to support a waiver of COVID-19 vaccine patents at the World Trade Organization, a move they say is needed to ensure access to vaccines in lower-income countries. 

“Your Administration has the opportunity to reverse the damage done by the Trump Administration to our nation’s global reputation and restore America’s public health leadership on the world stage,” the senators wrote in a letter to Biden dated Thursday.

“To bring the pandemic to its quickest end and save the lives of Americans and people around the world, we ask that you prioritize people over pharmaceutical company profits by reversing the Trump position and announcing U.S. support for the [waiver].”

The letter is part of mounting pressure campaign on Biden from progressive Democrats. Several House lawmakers, including House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), have also been leading a campaign to get the administration to support the waiver. An array of outside groups, including Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders and Partners in Health, also support the effort. 

Backers argue that waiving intellectual property protections on vaccines is needed to give lower-income countries the ability to manufacture vaccines themselves. Others argue that patent protections are not the main barrier to global vaccine access and that the real problem is a lack of technical expertise and capacity around extremely complex manufacturing. 

The pharmaceutical industry fiercely opposes the waiver, and points to voluntary agreements instead, like a deal between AstraZeneca and the Serum Institute of India.

In addition to Sanders, the Senate letter was signed by Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Tammy Baldwin (Wis.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Chris Murphy (Conn.), Jeff Merkley (Ore.), Ed Markey (Mass.), Chris Van Hollen (Md.) and Raphael Warnock (Ga.). 

They argue that allowing the virus to continue to circulate in other countries is also a risk to the United States, given that it allows the virus to continue to mutate and for new, potentially vaccine-resistant variants to develop. 

“Emerging COVID-19 variants show more resistance to vaccines and are more infectious,” they write. “They spotlight why time is of the essence: further delay in developing immunity around the world will only lead to faster and stronger mutations.”

Major unions, another group of Democratic allies, are also backing the waiver, and several, including the AFL-CIO and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, met with U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai on Tuesday.

Tai did not tip her hand on the administration’s position on the waiver in the meeting, sources said.

“The Ambassador conveyed the Administration’s commitment to increasing Covid-19 vaccine production and distribution, both at home and worldwide,” Tai’s office said in a readout of the meeting. “The Ambassador sought their views on increasing vaccine availability and preventing the emergence and spread of new variants that could weaken our ability to end the pandemic.”

The senators’ letter comes ahead of a key World Trade Organization meeting in early May. 

Tags Bernie Sanders Chris Murphy Chris Van Hollen Coronavirus COVID-19 Ed Markey Elizabeth Warren India Jeff Merkley Joe Biden Katherine Tai prescription drugs Raphael Warnock Rosa DeLauro Sherrod Brown South Africa Tammy Baldwin World Trade Organization
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