The U.S. will have to engage in detailed negotiations on the scope of the waiver at the World Trade Organization, whose 164 members have to unanimously agree to such a change. But the shift in the U.S.’ position will likely be seen as a major step to aiding global efforts to fight the pandemic.
“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,” Tai said.
Tai’s statement mentioned waiving only intellectual property protections for vaccines — one early sign that any waiver approved by the WTO could be narrower than what India and South Africa proposed eight months ago.
Pharmaceutical companies including Moderna and Pfizer have strongly opposed such a move, saying it would undermine incentives to develop drugs to fight future pandemics and other diseases. They also argue the main impediments to the rapid expansion of vaccine production are logistical, including various export barriers that countries have imposed.
Shortly before the announcement, Biden’s chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci said in an interview that the U.S. has a “moral obligation” to share coronavirus vaccines and supplies worldwide to end the pandemic.
Fauci, the federal government’s longtime infectious disease official told POLITICO that he backs waiving pharmaceutical giants’ vaccine patents so that other countries can produce generic versions of the shots. But he cautioned that doing so would not be a quick fix for the current crisis, including surging cases and deaths in India.
Tai said that the administration will participate in global negotiations on the language to implement the waiver. “Those negotiations will take time given the consensus-based nature of the institution and the complexity of the issues involved,” she added.
Until now, the United States and the European Union have opposed even beginning talks on details of how the waiver would work, or how long it would last.
But earlier on Wednesday, World Trade Organization Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said it was time for countries to sit down and thrash out the issue. Her comments came during the first of two days of a WTO General Council meeting, the organization’s main decision-making body.
“I am firmly convinced that once we can sit down with an actual text in front of us, we shall find a pragmatic way forward, acceptable to all sides that allow the kinds of answers that our developing country members are looking at with respect to vaccines, whilst at the same time looking at research and innovation and how to protect them,” she said.