The U.S. said Wednesday it would support the temporary waiver of intellectual property provisions to allow developing nations to produce Covid-19 vaccines created by pharmaceutical companies, citing an urgent need to stem the pandemic.
Overriding objections from the pharmaceutical industry, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai said the U.S. would support a proposal working its way through the World Trade Organization. Such a policy would waive the IP rights of vaccine makers to potentially enable companies in developing countries and others to manufacture their own versions of Covid-19 vaccines.
Countries suffering from an explosion in new cases—including India and South Africa—have pushed for the waiver. In India, it was reported recently that less than 2% of the population had been vaccinated, and new Covid-19 cases are at record highs globally, as the pandemic rages unchecked in many poor and middle-income countries.
Pharmaceutical companies, however, oppose it, saying the waiver won’t provide the short-term results proponents think it will, partly because of the challenge of setting up complex new production facilities to manufacture the vaccines.
Lifting patent restrictions means that rival companies would be able to manufacture vaccines using public patents without risk of legal challenges by Covid-19 vaccine makers.
However, manufacturing the Covid-19 vaccines is a complex scientific process that involves securing hard-to-find raw materials and scaling them in a way that has never been done before, according to industry experts. Factories must be built or retrofitted with special, expensive equipment, and employees must have the manufacturing know-how.
Governments and other health experts have called for sharing patent rights to help spur additional production of vaccines around the world, particularly in developing nations where few people have received shots. The U.S. and other nations have by contrast progressed to vaccinate almost a majority of their populations.