Biden admin backs proposal to suspend intellectual property on COVID-19 vaccines, angering industry

White House
The Biden administration backed a controversial World Trade Organization proposal to suspend intellectual property rights for pandemic shots. (Photo by AndrewSoundarajan/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images)

Bucking the pharma industry on the closely watched issue of patent rights for COVID-19 vaccines, the Biden administration came out in favor of a proposal at the World Trade Organization (WTO) to suspend intellectual property protections for pandemic shots.

In a statement Wednesday, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai said the "extraordinary circumstances" of the pandemic call for "extraordinary measures." The administration supports intellectual property protections generally, she said, but "in service of ending this pandemic," it also supports "the waiver of those protections for COVID-19 vaccines."

The news drew a swift rebuke from Stephen Ubl, head of the top industry lobbying group PhRMA, who called the move an "unprecedented step that will undermine our global response to the pandemic and compromise safety." The decision "does nothing to address the real challenges to getting more shots in arms, including last-mile distribution and limited availability of raw materials," he added.

While the pharma industry opposed the move, Oxfam and other groups lauded the decision. In a statement, Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch Director Lori Wallach thanked the president and Tai for "prioritizing saving human lives and livelihoods" in the fight against the pandemic. Oxfam America president and CEO Abby Maxman celebrated the decision to "engage with the rest of the world to pull down all barriers standing in the way of everyone everywhere getting access to COVID vaccines."

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COVID-19 vaccines have been deployed around the world in an impressive fashion in recent months, but while the U.S. now has an excess of doses, India and other countries face dire shortages. The proposal is aimed at allowing local drug manufacturers around the world produce proven vaccines.

But it’s not clear the proposal would do anything to increase supply, Chad Landmon, the chair of Axinn, Veltrop & Harkrider’s Intellectual Property and FDA practice groups, said in an interview.

“The [intellectual property] has not been a barrier to the production—it’s really been the technology and how complicated” it is to manufacture COVID-19 vaccines, he said.

Aside from complex manufacturing, supply chain issues—such as shortages on raw materials—have also challenged vaccine makers. A more effective approach would focus on those challenges and try to get companies to cooperate with one another rather than striking down IP protections, Landmon said.

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Still, the move could increase pressure on COVID-19 vaccine makers to strike new partnerships and share their technology, he said. 

While the U.S. is an important backer for the proposal, the waiver is not final until the WTO reaches a consensus on the issue.

Editor's note: This story was updated with comments from Axinn, Veltrop & Harkrider’s Chad Landmon.