Poor countries are fighting with drug companies over vaccines. Now Biden must pick a side.

Pharmaceutical companies, including those who make the vaccines now approved in the US, are largely opposed to this move. They say doing so will undermine the global response to the pandemic and will not have the intended effect of accelerating production. The Trump administration was against it at the WTO. But the House Democrats say they have already collected nearly a hundred signatures on a letter asking Biden to change the US position. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) And Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) We also weighed in. These critics accuse pharmaceutical companies of prioritizing profits over saving lives.

“We have to make vaccines widely available if we are to eradicate this virus, and we have to make public decisions in both the US and the WTO that put the patient first,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D – Conn.), One of the signatories of the House letter and chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

The WTO has been bogged down on this matter for six months, and so far the appeal by lawmakers and over 400 health, work, religious and other groups did not persuade Biden to change the US position against the waiver. As the WTO works by consensus, all 164 members would have to agree to support the measure in order for it to take effect. Proponents of the waiver, however, believe that a US move in their direction would have a transformative effect on other adversaries.

For now, Biden’s administrative officials are only saying that they will make a decision based on their analysis of the effectiveness of the waiver. They also refer to Biden’s pledge to donate $ 4 billion to COVAX, the international alliance to distribute vaccines to 92 low- and middle-income countries.

“The United States’ top priority is to save lives and end the pandemic, including investing in COVAX and increasing the production and supply of vaccines,” said Adam Hodge, spokesman for the US sales representative’s office. “We are examining all possibilities to coordinate with our global partners and assess the effectiveness of this specific proposal based on its real potential to save lives.”

The Trump administration’s opposition to the waiver was a rare example of solidarity with the European Union, which, along with Japan, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and several other WTO members, is also against the waiver of intellectual property protection.

However, it is typical of rich countries where large pharmaceutical companies are based to oppose any challenges to the intellectual property rights of poorer nations.

The most developed nation bloc argues that strong patent protection was key to the rapid development of vaccines, and a full derogation would undermine the industry’s ability to respond to a future pandemic.

In a letter to Biden earlier this month, top executives from 31 drug companies said that proponents of the waiver hadn’t provided evidence that patent and other protective measures are currently hampering vaccine availability, rather than the expected delay between product development and increasing production to meet global demand.

“Despite the immense challenge of scaling manufacturing to novel technologies, estimates suggest that Covid-19 vaccine makers will deliver approximately 10 billion doses by the end of 2021, enough to vaccinate all of the current global vaccine population.” they added.

At least two companies – AstraZeneca and Novavax – have allowed manufacturers in India, Japan and South Korea to manufacture their vaccines under voluntary licensing agreements.

However, the World Health Organization, which supports India and South Africa’s request for exemption, argues that the terms of the voluntary licensing schemes offered by some patent holders are not enough to address the current pandemic.

The Vatican, which has observer status at the WTO, has also entered the debate. Quoting Pope Francis, the Holy See representative argued during a meeting of the WTO Intellectual Property Council last month that the world should not allow market law and patents to take precedence over human health.

Proponents of the surrender hope these and other moral arguments will resonate with Biden, who is the second Roman Catholic President of the United States and who was photographed on his first day in office sitting in front of a picture of yourself and the Pope.

They also make an economic argument, saying that a loss of pharmaceutical company profits would be more than offset by global economic gains resulting from a faster recovery as well as the number of lives saved.

The next meeting to examine the issue at the WTO will take place over two days in mid-April. This will give Katherine Tai, Biden’s newly confirmed US sales representative, some time to look into the matter. If there is no solution, Biden could grapple with the issue later this year when the G-20 leaders hold their annual meeting in Rome in October. Both South Africa and India are members of the leading economic group alongside the US, China, Germany, France and the EU as a whole. India could also raise the issue by attending the G7 summit in June as an invited guest.

Among the major developing countries, only Brazil is open to it, while China has said the application for a waiver is a good starting point for discussions about emergency measures that should be taken. India, a major generic drug maker, claims more than 100 countries support the proposal.

WTO’s new Director General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, former co-chair of the alliance behind COVAX, has proposed a “third” solution to encourage vaccine patent holders to enter into voluntary licensing agreements with drug manufacturers around the world in order to scale production up .

A group of four Republican Senators Led by Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Biden has also urged not to support the waiver.

“Surrendering all intellectual property rights would end the innovation pipeline and stop the development of new vaccines or boosters to address variants of the virus. This would also reduce the availability of vaccines due to the enormous time and resources required to build a new facility are not increase. ” Plant and acquire the know-how to make these complex drugs, “wrote the senators.

However, proponents of the waiver say drug makers cannot be trusted when they say that 10 billion doses will be available by the end of the year. Other estimates suggest that it might not be until 2023 or 2024 before enough vaccines are available to treat the world’s population, said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.).

“Time is of the essence at the moment too, as the variants develop,” said Schakowsky. “The administration has taken some steps in the right direction. The real answer, however, is to enable these vaccines to be manufactured. “

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