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The Biden administration supports temporarily lifting intellectual property protections for coronavirus vaccines and will move forward with international discussions to waive them, its top trade negotiator said on Wednesday.
"This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures. 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," U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai said in a statement.
Tai said the United States would participate in negotiations around an international waiver of the protections, cautioning that the discussions would "take time." The United States had helped block negotiations around the proposal since its October 2020 introduction by Indian and South African officials.
Bloomberg News first reported that the Biden administration would support the waiver.
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The matter centers on a proposal in front of the World Trade Organization that would waive a slew of intellectual property protections on medical products for the duration of the pandemic. The pharmaceutical industry has fought the proposal, arguing that it would weaken drug companies' existing efforts to rapidly produce billions of vaccine doses.
Dozens of developing countries back the proposal, arguing it will allow them to rapidly produce their own generic vaccines, rather than wait months or years for sufficient doses.
Tai, who is attending this week's WTO sessions in Geneva, has spent weeks meeting with advocates and opponents of the proposal, which had divided the White House. Some White House officials focused on the domestic coronavirus response have warned that waiving protections on the vaccines could spark new competition for ingredients that could disrupt global production. Pharmaceutical companies also have vehemently opposed the matter, warning it could have drastic impacts on their ability to produce vaccine while offshoring American jobs.
The waiver had sparked broader consternation in Washington over the past few months, as progressives have pressed the Biden administration to support it. The debate exploded in recent weeks as the United States administered hundreds of millions of shots to its own citizens while other countries, including India, reeled from the worsening global coronavirus outbreak.
House Democrats on Tuesday amped up pressure on the White House to support the temporary suspension of patent protections on coronavirus vaccines, releasing a letter signed by most of the chamber's Democratic caucus calling on President Joe Biden to "restore America's public health leadership on the world stage."
Progressives cheered the move as a significant step toward combating the pandemic.
"With this waiver, we can share vaccine recipes, largely developed with taxpayer dollars, while assuring reasonable royalties to American manufacturers. The best way to end the deadly global vaccine shortage is to enable more manufacturers to make vaccines," said Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, who chairs the House Ways and Means health subcommittee.
"We turned up the heat and I think the president cares deeply about keeping promises," said Faiz Shakir, a former chief adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who lobbied senior administration officials about the waiver. "For those of us who are activists, it's important for us to remember we demand they do what they already promised. And to their credit they did so."