“Extraordinary Times, Extraordinary Measures”: US Approach to Overcoming the Pandemic

© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A healthcare worker prepares a vaccination for Pfizer Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) on January 7, 2021 in Los Angeles, California, United States. REUTERS / Lucy Nicholson / File Photo

By Andrea Shalal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States will continue to press for a surrender of intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines and treatments even as it and other rich nations of the Group of Seven greatly expand vaccine donations to poorer countries.

U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai said Thursday the Biden government was working on multiple fronts to end the pandemic.

“Exceptional circumstances call for exceptional measures,” Tai told a union members virtual town hall hosted by the AFL-CIO trade association.

These efforts included donations of 80 million doses of vaccine by the end of June, additional donations of 500 million doses that President Joe Biden announced Thursday, and negotiations with the World Trade Organization (WTO) to achieve a limited intellectual property (IP) waiver. Vaccine rights, she said.

“And this may take some time given the complexity of the issues involved, but our goal remains to get vaccines to as many people as possible,” said Tai, adding that the pandemic would not be over until it would be contained everywhere.

Biden’s plan to donate an additional 500 million cans – a key element of the G7’s 1 billion donation plan – raises some questions as to whether Washington could abandon its support for an intellectual property surrender at the WTO.

The waiver is opposed by Germany, the UK and some other US allies, as well as US business.

However, Biden government officials say the waiver will help boost coronavirus vaccine production worldwide.

Biden said Thursday the crisis, like the previous AIDS epidemic, will require a global response and that failure to stop the pandemic could stunt global growth and increase instability in some countries.

“We will keep making cans, donating cans, ‘bumps’ – as they say here in the UK – reaching out in our arms until the world is out of this virus,” he said.

Sean Flynn, an intellectual property expert at American University Washington, said he expected the WTO to reach an agreement on an exemption at a ministerial meeting later this year.

He welcomed the US “ideological flexibility” to pursue both waivers and steps to increase vaccine donations, saying new virus mutations underscore the need for vaccines to be manufactured by more than the few actors in rich countries.

US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said Thursday that about two dozen low-income countries had vaccinated just 1% of their population. “America is better off in a more prosperous, vaccinated world than it is in a poorer, unvaccinated world,” she said.

The pharmaceutical industry argues that companies have invested their own resources in vaccine development and relinquishing their intellectual property rights will undermine that work in the future.

Robert Grant, senior director of international affairs at the US Chamber of Commerce’s Global Innovation Policy Center, said there was “no evidence” that surrendering intellectual property rights would boost vaccine production.

“The concern is that countries around the world will just start saying, ‘Well, we’re not going to implement or enforce intellectual property laws,'” he said, adding that the result would be a messy patchwork of laws that “Undermined” the reasons for investing in these places for years. ”

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