The US Shouldn’t Use Intellectual Property Claims to Block Vaccine Access

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A woman receives the AstraZeneca vaccine for Covid-19 at an apartment building in Bengaluru, India, April 24, 2021.
© 2021 AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi

The Biden administration announced this week that the US will donate 60 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines to other countries in need. The announcement comes as India and Brazil face devastating surges in Covid-19 cases and deaths, with hospitals overrun and oxygen in short supply. Recently, France, New Zealand and Spain committed to sharing stocks too, and for months now, China, India, Russia, Serbia, Israel and the UAE have been making vaccine donations of their own.

While sharing vaccines is welcome, it is nowhere near enough to address yawning inequities in global vaccine access. For that reason, many members of the US Congress, from Nancy Pelosi, Jan Schakowsky and Ro Khanna to Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, have been urging the Biden administration to change its approach on intellectual property protections. 

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also appealed to President Biden personally to support a proposal to waive intellectual property rights for Covid-19 related vaccines, diagnostics, and therapeutics. The Biden administration promised medical aid to India but has yet to end the US opposition to the waiver at the World Trade Organization, which meets again on the issue April 30. Although more than 100 countries support the waiver, the US along with the EU, Australia and other wealthy governments, have stood in the way. Undoubtedly, there are other factors affecting global supply too, but if a waiver had been adopted last October, when it was proposed, it might have already unlocked new production capacity.  

The New York Times editorial board recently joined the chorus demanding a waiver, echoing Nobel laureates and former world leaders, hundreds of lawmakers from Europe, the head of the World Health Organization, faith leaders like the Pope, and countless civil society organizations and unions. Sixty percent of US voters support a waiver and the new US Trade representative, Katherine Tai, appears open minded too. She’s said “the market once again has failed in meeting the health needs of developing countries” and urged members of the WTO “to consider what modifications and reforms to our trade rules might be necessary.”  

In the US, anyone over the age of 16 is eligible to be vaccinated, but in many countries even frontline health workers may wait months, if not years, for their shot. Last year, President Biden told Ady Barkan, a prominent health care advocate, that Trump’s “America First” approach “lacked any human dignity.”

Biden pledged to do things differently. We’re waiting.