Pressure builds for Biden to back vaccine patent waivers
Pressure is mounting on the Biden administration to back a waiver for COVID-19 vaccine patents or take other action to share more doses with other countries amid a global surge in cases.
A group of Democratic lawmakers met with White House officials on Friday to push for the waiver at the World Trade Organization, which proponents argue would enable lower-income countries to manufacture the vaccines themselves.
Sources said the eight lawmakers did not get a firm answer from U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai and White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients.
After the meeting, Democrats including Reps. Lloyd Doggett (Texas), Jan Schakowsky (Ill.), Earl Blumenauer (Ore.) and Rosa DeLauro (Conn.), the chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, issued a statement ramping up pressure and calling on outside groups to turn up the heat as well.
“We need more urgent action by the Administration to remove any objection to the [waiver] and permit sharing of the intellectual property required for vaccine manufacturing to get underway immediately,” the lawmakers said. “To underscore the need for action now, we hope that more taxpayers, public interest advocates, religious and business leaders will join our call on the Administration. With an increasing public outcry, the Administration must act.”
Top administration officials were also pressed on the issue during the Sunday talk shows.
White House chief of staff Ron Klain said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that Tai will be engaged in “talks on how we can get this vaccine more widely distributed, more widely licensed, more widely shared.”
“We’re going to have more to say about that in the days to come,” he said when asked about Biden’s position.
The World Trade Organization is slated to hold a meeting Wednesday.
But Klain also argued that patents and other intellectual property (IP) protections are not the main barrier to increasing global vaccine access, an argument echoed by some experts as well.
“Intellectual property rights is part of the problem,” Klain said. “But really, manufacturing is the biggest problem. We have a factory here in the U.S. that has the full intellectual property rights to make the vaccine. They aren’t making doses because the factory has problems.”
The push for the patent waiver has opened up an intense debate as dire scenes in countries like India raise the pressure for the U.S. to do more to help the world. India, along with South Africa, is leading the push for the waiver, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi raised it on a call with President Biden last week.
Experts warn that even from a purely self-interested standpoint, the U.S. has reason to want to increase vaccinations around the world, because the more the virus spreads anywhere, the better chance there is for new variants to develop that could evade the protection of vaccines.
In addition to the House lawmakers, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) led a letter to the administration with nine Democratic senators last month. Health groups like Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders and Partners in Health have also joined the calls.
“I think what we have got to say right now to the drug companies, when millions of lives are at stake around the world, yes, allow other countries to have these intellectual property rights so that they can produce the vaccines that are desperately needed in poor countries,” Sanders said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
But some experts caution that simply waiving patents would not solve the problem, given that the vaccines are very difficult to produce. The real issue, they argue, is ramping up manufacturing capacity and sharing the technological know-how to be able to make the vaccines in more countries.
“The IP by itself is not that valuable,” said Rachel Silverman, policy fellow at the Center for Global Development. “It’s sort of a necessary but not sufficient part of being able to produce these vaccines.”
She said a compromise could be pressuring vaccine makers to enter into more voluntary licensing deals to share details with other countries about the manufacturing process and that the U.S. should be providing “orders of magnitude” more funding to build up global vaccine production capacity.
Tom Frieden, who led the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during the Obama administration, likewise said a more holistic global response is needed, with the U.S. playing a larger role, and including coordination on a global scale along the lines of the Trump administration’s domestic-focused Operation Warp Speed.
“If you see what happened with Warp Speed — very active industrial policy, getting manufacturers to work together, addressing supply chain problems — that same thing is really needed globally,” Frieden said.
Tai has also been meeting with vaccine makers, who are strongly opposed to giving up their patents though they point to voluntary licensing agreements as an alternative.
Pfizer, in a document outlining its objections, argued that the waiver could set off a free-for-all for scarce raw materials that would make manufacturing harder.
“Greater demand pressures on inputs from new market entrants will make it harder, not easier, to manufacture vaccines in the near term,” the company said, noting its vaccine requires 280 materials from 86 suppliers in 19 countries.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said last week that Biden had not yet made a decision on the waiver.
“Our focus is on maximizing production and supply for the world at the lowest possible cost, and there are a lot of different ways to do that,” she said, calling the waiver one “option” under consideration.
Frieden, now president of Resolve to Save Lives, a public health group, has called for a compromise approach.
“I try to take kind of a middle ground here between folks within industry who basically say, ‘Nothing to look at here, folks, everything’s fine, we’ve got it covered,’ and people in some quarters who say, ‘Well, just open up the IP and it will all be fine,’ ” he said. “I don’t think either of those positions is correct.”
But he did say more vaccines are desperately needed in lower income countries.
“We face a potential world in which 6-12 months from now, the U.S., much of Europe, Israel, a bunch of other places, are basically back to normal going to the movies, while body bags are stacking up in the countries that didn’t have enough vaccine.”