U.S. trade representative Katherine Tai announced Wednesday that the United States supports waiving intellectual property (IP) protections on Covid-19 vaccines.
Tai said the administration will now participate in negotiations with the World Trade Organization (WTO) to waive the intellectual property rights that protect pharmaceutical trade secrets.
"The Administration believes strongly in intellectual property, but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for Covid-19 vaccines," Tai wrote in a statement.
Tai said the negotiations will take time "given the consensus-based nature of the institution and the complexity of the issues involved."
President Biden had hinted that the U.S. would back the waiver proposal. "Yes, I’m going to talk about that later today," Biden said in a press conference on the American Jobs Plan shortly before Tai’s announcement.
"As our vaccine supply for the American people is secured, the Administration will continue to ramp up its efforts – working with the private sector and all possible partners – to expand vaccine manufacturing and distribution. It will also work to increase the raw materials needed to produce those vaccines," Tai continued.
The waiver proposal was spearheaded by India and South Africa, which argue it would allow lower-income countries to develop the vaccine themselves. India is facing record-breaking coronavirus cases and deaths, as well as overwhelmed hospital capacities.
House Republicans stood against waiving IP protections on coronavirus vaccines. Republicans led by Reps. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, wrote a letter to Tai arguing the waiver would do little to improve public health.
"The requested waiver is extraordinarily broad and unnecessary to accomplish the goal of giving as many people as possible access to vaccines and treatments for COVID-19, including in developing countries," they wrote. "Rather, the waiver would undermine the very innovation that has led to the record-breaking rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines already saving lives around the world, and it would not meaningfully improve vaccine availability."
The lawmakers wrote that the international community should instead focus on "the real obstacles faced by developing countries in accessing vaccines and treatments, which does not require waiving intellectual property rights."
They argued that logistical and regulatory challenges provide a far greater barrier, given that even with the recipe, the vaccine is difficult to produce.
Dr. Anthony Fauci in an interview with the Financial Times Monday said he was "agnostic" to the idea of the waiver and warned of inevitable pharmaceutical industry lawsuits that could tie up the process.
"If you take too long, people are going to die," Fauci told the paper. "There are other ways to ramp up vaccine production around the world."