Democrats pressure Biden to support WTO rule change for equitable vaccine access as 23 countries demand change for future pandemics

March 31, 2021: The Biden Administration has come under pressure from almost 100 Congressional Democrats to support the suspension of World Trade Organisation rules on intellectual property during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 23 world leaders are now proposing a new international treaty for pandemic preparedness and response.

The major pharmaceutical companies who are controlling the COVID-19 vaccination rollout are resolutely opposing the suspension of current rules at the WTO and at the White House.

They say the IP suspension would undermine the global response to the pandemic and not have the intended effect of speeding up production. But the Congressional Democrats accuse the drug companies of prioritizing profits over saving lives.

“We need to make the vaccines available everywhere if we're going to crush this virus, and we need to make the public policy choices both in the U. and at the WTO that puts patients first,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), one of the signatories on the House letter and chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

The WTO has been deadlocked on the issue for six months, and so far an appeal from US lawmakers and over 400 health, labor, religious and other groups has not persuaded Biden to change the US position against the IP suspension. Backers of the proposed suspension believe a US switch would be a game changer.

For now, Biden administration officials only say they will make a decision based on their analysis of how effective the IP suspension would be.

Biden’ has pledged US$4 billion in contributions to COVAX, the international alliance to distribute vaccines to 92 low- and middle-income countries. However, COVAX is based on subsidising poorer countries, rather than empowering them. COVAX is being outbid in purchase agreements by rich country governments, according to the new WTO Director General, Dr Ngozi.

The 23 world leaders calling for a new treaty are the prime ministers, presidents and chancellor of Fiji, Portugal, Romania, United Kingdom, Rwanda, Kenya, France, Germany, Greece, South Korea, Chile, Costa Rica, Albania, South Africa, Trinidad and Tobago, Netherlands, Tunisia, Senegal, Spain, Norway, Serbia, Indonesia and Ukraine. They are supported by the President of the European Council and the Director General of the World Health Organisation.

Their statement says: “The Covid-19 pandemic has been a stark and painful reminder that nobody is safe until everyone is safe. We are, therefore, committed to ensuring universal and equitable access to safe, efficacious and affordable vaccines, medicines and diagnostics for this and future pandemics. …

“To that end, we believe that nations should work together towards a new international treaty for pandemic preparedness and response. Such a renewed collective commitment would be a milestone in stepping up pandemic preparedness at the highest political level. It would be rooted in the constitution of the World Health Organisation, drawing in other relevant organisations key to this endeavour, in support of the principle of health for all”.

Neither Australia nor the USA are among those calling for the new treaty. Australia continues to oppose the pandemic-related suspension of IP rules in the WTO.