Why Won’t The U.S. Lift COVID Vaccine Patents To Help Other Countries?

Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images.
The COVID-19 pandemic is far from over — and not just here in the U.S., but worldwide. In India, a deadly second wave of COVID-19 infections is devastating the country and overwhelming its hospitals. To date, more than 200,000 people in India have reportedly died — a number that is likely to be much higher — and as many as 300,000 Indians are contracting the virus every day. Hospitals are running out of beds and oxygen. And now, in an attempt to keep up with burial rituals, parks and other empty spaces are being utilized for cremations.
In response, the U.S. — as well as other countries, including the U.K., France, Ireland, Germany, and Australia — have started to send India medical equipment, including oxygen compression tanks, personal protective equipment, and ventilators. After speaking to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, President Joe Biden pledged the U.S.' “full support” and has since lifted the ban on “sending raw materials for vaccine production abroad, enabling India to manufacture more AstraZeneca doses,” according to the BBC
But this is only the bare minimum of what wealthy countries, including the U.S., can do to support India and other countries that are falling behind. Many — if not all — of these countries are refusing to lift vaccination patents and other intellectual property protections, preventing developing countries from mass-producing generic versions of the current vaccinations, which could save hundreds of thousands of lives. If those patents were lifted, other countries could duplicate ingredients in the existing COVID vaccines to mass-produce more doses.
In early March, South Africa and India renewed their bid to waive the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) agreement, a rule that protects intellectual property by way of patents and other legal avenues. Eighty countries, including the U.S., blocked the motion, arguing that “protecting intellectual property rights encouraged research and innovation” and that “suspending those rights would not result in a sudden surge of vaccine supply,” as reported by Reuters. 
But as of March 21, 90% of the nearly 400 million vaccines delivered worldwide thus far have been sent to wealthy and middle-income countries, according to data from The New York Times. If nothing changes, billions of people around the world will have to wait years before they can receive a COVID-19 vaccine.
You don't have to look too far back in world history to see the toll of protecting intellectual property over human life, either. As WHO members from South Africa pointed out, upholding patents during the HIV/AIDS epidemic has cost at least 11 million lives in Africa.
“If a temporary waiver to patents cannot be issued now, during these unprecedented times, when will be the right time?” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of WHO, has said. Meanwhile, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA, has argued that “the proposal marks a significant escalation in anti-IP global activism and will further polarize legitimate conversations on countries’ engagement to combat the pandemic.”
On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the Biden administration was considering lifting the COVID-19 vaccine patents and backing the efforts of South Africa, India, and other countries to wave intellectual property protections. “Right now, that’s one of the ways, but we have to assess what makes the most sense,” Psaki told reporters. On the same day, billionaire Bill Gates, who claims to be an advocate of mass vaccinations, came out against the idea. 
“The thing that’s holding things back, in this case, is not intellectual property,” Gates said during an interview with the U.K.'s Sky News. “It’s not like there’s some idle vaccine factory, with regulatory approval, that makes magically safe vaccines. You’ve got to do the trial on these things. And every manufacturing process needs to be looked at in a very careful way.” 
While world leaders and billionaires who are lucky enough to live in some of the richest countries on the planet continue to debate whether or not protecting intellectual property is more important than getting life-saving care to those who need it, a reported 3,285 people died of COVID-19 in India on Tuesday. A reported 3,647 people died on Wednesday. As many as 3,501 died on Thursday. Many of those people were likely never even given the option to get vaccinated — and they should have been.

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