US President Joe Biden. (File photo)
US President Joe Biden. (File photo)

President Joe Biden, do the right thing

Biden needs to convince developed and high-income countries to allow the World Trade Organization to grant temporary waiver from intellectual property rights to Covid-19 vaccines, therapeutics and new technologies so that they can be accessible to people all around the world
By Yashwant Raj
UPDATED ON APR 23, 2021 06:10 PM IST

It’s time for President Joe Biden to display his compassionate side and statesmanship on the world stage.

Biden needs to convince developed and high-income countries (starting with his own) to allow the World Trade Organization (WTO) to grant temporary waiver from intellectual property (IP) rights to Covid-19 vaccines, therapeutics and new technologies so that they can be accessible to people all around the world.

A proposal to this effect was moved by India and South Africa at WTO on October 2 when Sars-CoV-2 looked invincible, with no vaccine in sight. Seven months and many millions of infected cases and deaths after, that proposal has not moved an inch, blocked by high-income countries such as the United Sates, at the behest of pharmaceutical companies who argue IP rights fund their research and innovation.

A temporary waiver of these rights, such as patents, will not siphon off vaccines from these countries. Biden will not be forced by the waiver to part with vaccines from the US stockpile, which, he doesn’t want to do until all willing Americans have been vaccinated. That goal stands halfway accomplished.

More than 219 million Americans — of the total population of 328 million — have received at least one shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna’s two-dose vaccines and Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose alternative; 66 million, or 20%, have been fully vaccinated. The Washington Post estimates that the total number of vaccines secured by the US is twice the number of doses needed to inoculate all its citizens.

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Around 80 countries have lined up behind this appeal from India and South Africa so far, as have a growing number of US lawmakers, especially those from Biden’s own party. “To bring the pandemic to its quickest end and save the lives of Americans and people around the world, we ask that you prioritise people over pharmaceutical company profits by reversing the Trump position and announcing US support for the WTO TRIPS (the agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) waiver,” said 10 US Democratic senators, including Bernie Sanders, in a letter to Biden on April 17.

Overturning this WTO decision should be easy for Biden as reversing President Donald Trump’s policy imprint has been a key feature of his foreign policy. And it will be welcomed by India as fair and long overdue. Trump badgered India to release a consignment of hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug used as a prophylactic that he believed at the time could also be used for treating Covid-19, despite a ban. But he denied India a quid pro quo when it needed him, at WTO.

While at it, Biden might also take a look at a supply bottleneck caused by his use of a war-time law, the Defense Production Act , in ramping up vaccine production in India. Indian vaccine-makers such as the Serum Institute of India have complained of being denied supplies of raw materials needed for Covid-19 vaccines because American suppliers are obligated under that law to prioritise domestic buyers.

yashwant.raj@hindustantimes.com

The views expressed are personal

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