Joe Biden has not yet announced whether his administration will support a global push to waive intellectual property protections on Covid-19 vaccines, as the White House faces growing pressure from world leaders and US officials to waive those protections in the face of the crisis.
“We’re going to decide that as we go along,” he told reporters following a White House briefing on vaccine distribution. “I haven’t made that decision yet.”
In an interview from July 2020, Mr Biden told activist Ady Barkan that he “absolutely, positively” supports the idea.
“This is the only humane thing in the world to do,” Mr Biden said.
A video of Mr Biden responding to whether he supports sharing vaccine technology without a patent blockade has urged the president to “keep his word”.
This week, the World Trade Organization will assess whether to temporarily waive the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights agreement, which has effectively provided pharmaceutical companies monopoly control over vaccine production, potentially locking out poor countries from expanding their supplies.
Mr Barkan said “all eyes will be on America” as the WTO convenes this week.
“We will decide the answer to the world’s plea,” he said. “What kind of leadership will we display? The answer, Mr President, is up to you.”
Dr Anthony Fauci, the president’s chief medical adviser, signalled that the US may not move in that direction, telling Financial Times that he does not believe that waiving intellectual property protections on Covid-19 vaccines is the “fastest and most efficient way” to get doses into arms around the world.
“Going back and forth, consuming time and lawyers in a legal argument about waivers – that is not the end game,” he said. “People are dying around the world and we have to get vaccines into their arms in the fastest and most efficient way possible.”
More than 100 developing countries have urged the organisation to waive those restrictions following a proposal that was filed jointly by India and South Africa back in October 2020.
In the US, more than 100 members of Congress have pressed the White House to reverse the US position, established under Donald Trump’s administration.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki also told reporters on Tuesday that the administration is likely to provide an update on its position as the WTO’s general council session is underway this week, but officials have not maintained the unequivocal response that Mr Biden gave on the campaign trail.
US Trade ambassador Katherine Tai has not yet made a recommendation on a US position to Mr Biden, Ms Psaki said.
“What we’re talking about is the US position – it’s a WTO process, and what ultimately happens here would not be up to the US alone,” she said.
As wealthier countries spend millions to manufacture and distribute vaccines, poorer countries are facing years-long waiting lists for supplies.
Covax, the United Nations effort to boost global vaccine supply, is not scaled to fill every gap, prompting the push from humanitarian aid groups and more than 400 government officials across the EU, including WHO’s director general, to lift the intellectual property provisions on vaccines and equipment.
Last month, Ambassador Tai met with members of Oxfam America, Human Rights Watch and Doctors Without Borders, as well as executives from Pfizer and AstraZeneca, to discuss the proposal.
“I think what I saw Dr Fauci’s comments speak to as well … is our objective is to save lives by producing as much supply as possible and getting shots in arms around the world in the most effective way,” Ms Psaki said. “And we’re determining what the right steps are to do that.”
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