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Biden administration supports waiving patent protections for Covid vaccines to raise global production

Biden has faced growing pressure to address Covid-19 surges in India and South America.
Image: A medical worker loads a syringe with the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine to be administered by nurses at a vaccination site at Kedren Community Health Center, in South Central Los Angeles on Feb. 16, 2021.
A medical worker loads a syringe with the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine at a vaccination site at Kedren Community Health Center in South Central Los Angeles on Feb. 16.Apu Gomes / AFP - Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration said Wednesday that it would support waiving patent protections for Covid-19 vaccines after weeks of pressure from the international community as cases surge brutally in India and other countries.

"The Administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections, but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for COVID-19 vaccines," Katherine Tai, the U.S. trade representative, said in a statement Wednesday afternoon.

"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 said.

Stock prices for major pharmaceutical companies traded down after the announcement.

Tai said the Biden administration would negotiate the text of the waiver at the World Trade Organization, which is meeting this week, but she said the "negotiations will take time given the consensus-based nature of the institution and the complexity of the issues involved."

President Joe Biden has faced increased pressure from the global community and some Democratic lawmakers to suspend drugmakers' patents for Covid-19 vaccines so other countries could produce generic vaccines.

The U.S. government provided assistance to some of the companies that developed the vaccines to speed availability.

The U.S. and other wealthy countries have been criticized for racing ahead in their vaccine rollouts as other, poorer countries struggle to obtain vaccines. Experts have warned that global vaccination inequality could prolong the pandemic for everyone if the coronavirus continues to mutate, which could make it more infectious and resistant to vaccines.

Biden has prioritized vaccinating all people in the U.S. before offering doses to other countries. But pressure to loosen patent protections has intensified as India and South America struggle with surges in Covid-19 cases and as concerns rise that China's and Russia's strategy of selling or donating their vaccines to other countries allows them to expand their influence throughout the world.

Some experts have cautioned that lifting patent protections might not improve global availability, because the medications are difficult to produce and some poorer countries might not be equipped to mass-produce enough, a concern that some in the White House share.

Ron Klain, the White House chief of staff, said Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation" that "intellectual property rights is part of the problem."

"But really, manufacturing is the biggest problem. We have a factory here in the U.S. that has the full intellectual property rights to make the vaccine. They aren't making doses because the factory has problems," he said.