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Biden takes a vital step on vaccine patents — but more action is needed

U.S. support for a patent waiver must be coupled with technology transfers, information sharing, and a coordinated global effort to distribute vaccines.

The Biden administration’s announcement that it will support a WTO patent waiver for COVID-19 vaccines is a welcome step towards ending the global pandemic — but it must be followed by coordinated efforts to boost vaccine production through technology transfer, information sharing, and increased financing to have its promised effect.

The move is a heel-turn for the administration, which in March helped block a proposal led by India and South Africa to waive patents for Covid vaccines, treatments, and vital medical supplies in order to enable the production of affordable generics, particularly in the developing world.

This reversal, announced by U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai, comes after months of pressure from activists and public health experts around the globe.

U.S. support does not itself guarantee passage of a patent waiver, as the United States was previously joined in blocking the measure by the United Kingdom, the European Union, and a handful of other countries. It does, however, make it vastly more likely that remaining holdouts will shift their positions. (At this time, New Zealand has already suggested it will move to support the waiver).

While the administration’s announcement is undoubtedly good news, crucial questions remain. Notably, Tai’s statement does not say that the U.S. will support the specific proposal put forward by India and South Africa. This suggests that the United States may advocate for a modified or narrower plan in WTO negotiations. Tai’s announcement states only that the U.S. will support a waiver for vaccines, not for treatments and medical supplies as included in the earlier proposal. To maximize the benefits of a waiver, the Biden administration must be pushed to support the broadest possible proposal, ideally including COVID treatments and medical supplies.

Most importantly, the waiver will require follow-on action in the form of technology transfer and information sharing. While patents are a primary barrier to broader vaccine production, new manufacturers will also need access to key technologies and production information. 

The Biden administration should begin working now to facilitate technology transfer through the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 Technology Access Pool and to share manufacturing information held by Pfizer, Moderna, and others. It should also come up with a plan to finance scaled-up production and distribution of vaccines worldwide.

The administration cannot hesitate in taking these next steps. Its embrace of a patent waiver offers an unprecedented opportunity to bring a more swift end to the pandemic — and with cases surging in devastating outbreaks around the world, there is no time to spare.

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