South Africa, India and USA start work on text to suspend patents on COVID-19 vaccines, Big Pharma resists

May 19, 2021: US Trade Representative Katherine Tai met with South African and Indian Ministers on May 13 and 14 to discuss COVID-19 vaccine production and the waiver of World Trade Organisation intellectual property rules proposed by the two countries last October.

Responding to pressure from public health and civil society groups, the Biden-Harris administration decided to give limited support to this proposal on May 5. Ambassador Tai also met with Dr Tedros, Director-General at the World Health Organisation to discuss how to increase vaccine production.

Without a radical expansion in vaccine manufacturing capacity, many developing countries will not achieve mass vaccination rates until 2023 or 2024.

Japan, Australia, and Brazil continue to oppose the waiver at the WTO, while the European Union has shifted to lukewarm support for the Biden-Harris shift.

Ambassador Tai argued that the waiver negotiations were a chance for the WTO to reassert its relevance in addressing the modern-day challenges of the pandemic.

At the same time, the pharmaceutical industry in the US launched a campaign to reverse the new While House position, according to a report by The Intercept.

On May 12, Jared Michaud, a lobbyist with the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, which includes Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca, and other major drug firms, sent an email laying out the industry’s role in coaxing lawmakers to push back against a waiver.

So far 29 House Republicans have signed onto a letter to President Biden opposing the vaccine waiver.

Talking points issued by the PhRMA said that waiving intellectual property will undermine the global response to the pandemic and compromise vaccine safety, empower Russia and China, and that the drug companies are already voluntarily supporting India in the pandemic crisis there.

PhRMA spent over $24 million on federal lobbying last year and is one of the biggest corporate players in election spending.

Despite the Biden-Harris administration’s unexpected reversal in support of the WTO waiver, drugmakers hope to weaken the waiver’s backing, slow negotiations, and delay any decision on the production of generic vaccines.