The Biden administration on Wednesday came out in support of waiving intellectual property protections for Covid-19 vaccines, a breakthrough for international efforts to suspend patent rules as the pandemic rages in India and South America.
The United States had been a major holdout at the World Trade Organization over a proposal to suspend intellectual property protections in an effort to ramp up vaccine production. But President Biden had come under increasing pressure to throw his support behind the proposal, including from many congressional Democrats.
Katherine Tai, the United States trade representative, announced the administration’s position in a statement on Wednesday afternoon.
“This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures,” she said. “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.”
Ms. Tai added that the United States would participate in negotiations at the W.TO. over the matter, adding, “Those negotiations will take time given the consensus-based nature of the institution and the complexity of the issues involved.”
Activists have been pressing for the waiver but have also said that a waiver alone will not boost world supply of the vaccine; it must be accompanied by the process known as “tech transfer,” in which patent holders supply technical know-how and personnel.
“This is a start,” said Gregg Gonsalves, a Yale University epidemiologist and longtime AIDS activist who has been pressing for the waiver. “We need the writing of the text of this waiver now to be transparent and public, but as we have always said we need tech transfer now.”
Earlier Wednesday, members of the W.T.O. held another round of discussions about waiving intellectual property protections. Further discussions are expected in the coming weeks, as India and South Africa, which proposed the waiver, are preparing a revised plan for nations to consider.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the director general of the W.T.O., urged members to proceed with negotiations over the text of the plan.
“I am firmly convinced that once we can sit down with an actual text in front of us, we shall find a pragmatic way forward,” she said at a meeting of the organization’s General Council.