US backs suspending patents on coronavirus vaccines

This decision has caused pharmaceutical stocks to plummet. On the other hand, countries such as India and South Africa have been calling for months for the patents to be suspended
Atalayar_Patentes de Vacunas

REUTERS/WILLY KURNIAWAN  -   A health worker holds a dose of Sinovac vaccine.

US Trade Representative Katherine Tai has announced that Washington supports temporarily suspending patents. "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", she posted on Twitter. Tai also noted that “the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures".

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has welcomed US President Joe Biden's decision. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom congratulated the US on this "historic" decision. Adhanom proposed working "together in solidarity".

Atalayar_Tedros Adhanom
REUTERS/FABRICE COFFRINI - The Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

However, Biden's initiative has been criticised by pharmaceutical companies. TThe International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA) held an opposing view, saying the decision was “disappointing”. They warn that suspending patents "will not increase production nor provide practical solutions needed". “On the contrary, it is likely to lead to disruption”, the organization said in a statement. "The only way to ensure quick scaling up of and equitable vaccine access to all those in need remains pragmatic and constructive dialog with the private sector”, added IFPMA. Thomas Cueni, the organisation's director, acknowledges the “legitimate concern” on access to COVID-19 patents, he nevertheless claims that “the [waiver] effort would jeopardize future medical innovation, making us more vulnerable to other diseases”.

Some of the pharmaceutical companies that have succeeded in producing vaccines against the COVID-19 virus have fallen on the stock market after the US government's announcement. Moderna closed down 6.19%, Novax lost 4.94% while BioNTech fell 3.45%.

Atalayar_Katherine Tai
REUTERS/SARAH SILBIGER - Katherine Tai, US Trade Representative

Within the United States, there are multiple opinions on Biden's decision. Media outlets such as The Washington Post have pointed out that instead of lifting intellectual property protection for vaccines, the US should send health aid to developing countries. On the political front, Republican representatives called on Katherine Tai in a letter to oppose releasing vaccine patents. The letter, written by politicians Jim Jordan and Darrell Issa, calls on the international community to focus on "overcoming the real obstacles faced by developing countries in accessing vaccines and treatments". The Republicans believe that addressing these problems does not "require giving up intellectual property rights".

Dr Anthony Fauci, a White House epidemiologist, has pointed out that patent deregulation may not be the best way to help boost access to vaccines in certain countries. Fauci said there are "other ways to increase vaccine production around the world". He also insisted that the solution is to deliver vaccines "as quickly and efficiently as possible". The doctor says he does not want to waste time on tribunals, because of future lawsuits from pharmaceutical companies. "If you take too long, people are going to die", Fauci warned the Financial Times. 

Atalayar_Coronavirus India
AP/AMIT SHARMA - In this May 1, 2021 file photo, family members carry the body of a person who died of COVID-19 as multiple pyres of other COVID-19 victims burn at a crematorium in New Delhi, India.
In the EU, the debate is raging

Across the Atlantic, Biden's decision has caused controversy among European politicians and countries. Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, said "the EU is also ready to discuss any proposals that addresses the crisis in an effective and pragmatic manner". She mentioned Biden's measure, saying "we are ready to discuss how the U.S. proposal for a waiver on intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines could help achieve that objective". Von der Leyen also pointed out that "Europe is the only democratic region in the world that exports vaccines on a large scale", in reference to Russia and China, the other two major exporters. 

According to Europa Press, this idea will be discussed at the summit of EU heads of state and government in Porto. European leaders will be able to debate and make their points for and against this measure. However, some politicians have already commented on Biden's decision. France has opposed patent liberalisation, arguing that a model based on donations to countries lacking vaccines is preferable. In contrast, Italy's health minister Roberto Speranza called Washington's proposal "an important step forward". "Europe must also play its part", he said. The Irish President, Michael D Higgins, has taken the same line, calling the measure "inmense moral significance in international policy". The German Social Democratic Party has called for "sharing licences and knowledge".

Atalayar_Vacunación coronavirus
REUTERS/LIM HUEY TENG - People wait in line to receive AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination centre in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 5 May 2021.
An unequal process 

Since the vaccination process began in developed countries, many NGOs have denounced the inequality with respect to developing countries. "Most high-income countries, at their own pace, have enough vaccines stockpiled. While low-income countries or countries in Africa have not even started", said Raquel Gonzalez, head of external relations at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

The NGO has "applauded" the US decision and calls on countries that continue to block the exemption at the WTO "to support the suspension of patents". MSF has pointed out that many of the countries where they work "have only received 0.3% of the world's vaccine supply", while the US still has more than 500 million vaccines. For this reason, they believe that if the US government really wants to end the pandemic it must also share its surplus vaccine doses. They have also mentioned the health collapse in countries such as India and Brazil.

Atalayar_Crisis sanitaria India
AP/CHANNI ANAND - COVID-19 infections and deaths are increasing at an alarming rate in India, with no end to the crisis in sight. People are dying because of shortages of bottled oxygen and hospital beds or because they have been unable to get tested for COVID-19.

MSF have made a direct appeal to countries that are opposed to suspending patents: United Kingdom, Switzerland, Canada, Australia, Norway, Japan, Brazil and the European Union. The NGO is calling on them to "act now" and decide if they want to "put people's health above pharmaceutical profits".