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May 6, 2021

The Biden administration is backing an international plan to suspend some of the intellectual property protections granted to coronavirus vaccines, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai announced Wednesday, an idea proponents say will make it easier for poorer countries to access vaccine doses—though critics fear it will not succeed in boosting supply.

The Biden administration will join negotiations at the World Trade Organization to loosen international enforcement of some patent laws for Covid-19 vaccines, an idea raised by India and South Africa, Tai said in a Wednesday afternoon statement.

Supporters say a waiver would allow more companies to make vaccine doses, causing supply to ramp up.

Tai said the administration supports strong intellectual property protections, but “the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures.”

“We are for what the proponents of the waiver are trying to accomplish, which is better access, more manufacturing capability, more shots in arms,” Tai told news agencies.

Negotiations. Tai says discussions to loosen patent protections at the WTO will “take time” because the body makes decisions by consensus. Some other wealthy places like the United Kingdom and the European Union remain noncommittal or opposed to the idea.


More than a billion coronavirus vaccine doses have been administered worldwide, but there’s a massive gulf between wealthy nations that purchased doses last year and poorer nations that are largely reliant on subsidies. Some advocates believe loosening patent protections would bolster the world’s supply and lower prices by allowing companies to manufacture generic versions of the vaccine.


The share of U.S. adults who have received at least one vaccine dose, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data has been placed at 56.7%. Meanwhile, India — which is currently dealing with the world’s worst coronavirus outbreak — has reached less than 10% of adults, and some African countries have vaccinated virtually none of their residents.

Some experts doubt patent waivers will make a difference. They argue vaccine supplies are limited due to a range of other factors that have nothing to do with intellectual property, including supply chain issues and a lack of factories capable of making mRNA vaccines. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said this week he’s “agnostic” about waivers but fears they could lead to legal battles with drugmakers. Plus, pharmaceutical companies say strong intellectual property protections give them an incentive to invest money into researching and manufacturing drugs.