The big trade policy news of today is that the Biden administration has reversed course and now supports a waiver from WTO intellectual property rules in the hopes of facilitating the production of COVID-19 vaccines. Two key points about this new policy are the following.
First, the Biden administration supports a waiver, but not necessarily the waiver currently on the table. As the administration’s press release states: “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. We will actively participate in text‐based negotiations at the World Trade Organization (WTO) needed to make that happen. Those negotiations will take time given the consensus‐based nature of the institution and the complexity of the issues involved.” So now we get some negotiations on the issue, which may or may not lead to a final agreement on the text of a waiver.
Second, and perhaps tied to the first, a final text on the waiver may not be the ultimate goal here. Two big supporters of the TRIPS waiver recently wrote the following: “A waiver would immediately increase government leverage over vaccine makers that refuse to license the technology.” What may be happening here, and it’s hard to know exactly what the administration is thinking (and different people in the administration may be thinking different things), is that they are trying to put pressure on the pharmaceutical industry to do more licensing of production to factories in developing countries (I discussed this possibility a bit in a recent blog post). Thus, the sudden U.S. support for a waiver may be part of its negotiating strategy with the pharmaceutical companies.
Some people may be using the issue of COVID‐19‐related patent waivers as an excuse to rethink intellectual property protection more broadly. Generally speaking, I am on board with an examination of whether the current system of protection is based on evidence. However, to deal with the problems of today (i.e. the pandemic), I am more interested in doing whatever we can to increase vaccine production. If we can get more factories producing safe and effective vaccines, we will reach the end of the pandemic sooner.
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