Pressure Mounts to Lift Patent Protections on Coronavirus Vaccines
President Biden and drugmakers are facing demands from liberal activists and global leaders to suspend intellectual property rights on the vaccines as the pandemic surges.
By Sheryl Gay Stolberg, Thomas Kaplan and Rebecca Robbins
WASHINGTON — President Biden, faced with surging Covid-19 crises in India and South America, is under intensifying pressure from the international community and his party’s left flank to commit to increasing the vaccine supply by loosening patent and intellectual property protections on coronavirus vaccines.
Pharmaceutical and biotech companies, also feeling pressure, sought on Monday to head off such a move, which could cut into future profits and jeopardize their business model. Pfizer and Moderna, two major vaccine makers, each announced steps to increase the supply of vaccine around the world.
The issue is coming to a head as the World Trade Organization’s General Council, one of its highest decision-making bodies, meets Wednesday and Thursday. India and South Africa are pressing for the body to waive an international intellectual property agreement that protects pharmaceutical trade secrets. The United States, Britain and the European Union so far have blocked the plan.
Inside the White House, health advisers to the president admit they are divided. Some say that Mr. Biden has a moral imperative to act, and that it is bad politics for the president to side with pharmaceutical executives. Others say spilling closely guarded but highly complex trade secrets into the open would do nothing to expand the global supply of vaccines.
Having the recipe for a vaccine does not mean a drugmaker could produce it, certainly not quickly, and opponents argue that such a move would harm innovation and entrepreneurship — and damage America’s pharmaceutical industry. Instead, they say, Mr. Biden can address global needs in other ways, like pressing companies that hold patents to donate vast quantities of vaccine or sell it at cost.
“For the industry, this would be a terrible, terrible precedent,” said Geoffrey Porges, an analyst for the investment bank SVB Leerink. “It would be intensively counterproductive, in the extreme, because what it would say to the industry is: ‘Don’t work on anything that we really care about, because if you do, we’re just going to take it away from you.’”
Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, Mr. Biden’s chief medical adviser for the pandemic, said in an interview Monday that the drugmakers themselves must act, either by greatly expanding their manufacturing capacity to supply other nations at “an extremely diminished price” or by transferring their technology to let the developing world make cheap copies. He said he was agnostic on a waiver.
“I always respect the needs of the companies to protect their interests to keep them in business, but we can’t do it completely at the expense of not allowing vaccine that’s lifesaving to get to the people that need it,” Dr. Fauci said, adding, “You can’t have people throughout the world dying because they don’t have access to a product that rich people have access to.”
For Mr. Biden, the debate over the waiver is both a political and a practical problem. As a presidential candidate, he promised the liberal health activist Ady Barkan, who has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or A.L.S., that he would “absolutely positively” commit to sharing technology and access to a coronavirus vaccine if the United States developed one first. Activists plan to remind Mr. Biden of that promise during a rally scheduled for Wednesday on the National Mall.
“He’s not being bold on this,” said Gregg Gonsalves, a Yale epidemiologist who fought similar battles during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, and is expected to speak at the rally. “They said this during the AIDS epidemic, too. All the same excuses are coming up from 20 years ago.”
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