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U.S. backs giving poorer countries access to COVID-19 vaccine patents, reversing stance

CoronavirusMay 06, 2021 01:11PM ET
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© Reuters. U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the state of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccinations from the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., May 4, 2021. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

By Andrea Shalal, Jeff Mason and David Lawder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -President Joe Biden on Wednesday threw his support behind waiving intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines, bowing to mounting pressure from Democratic lawmakers and more than 100 other countries, but angering pharmaceutical companies.

Biden voiced his support for a waiver - a sharp reversal of the previous U.S. position - in remarks to reporters, followed swiftly by a statement from his top trade negotiator, Katherine Tai, who backed negotiations at the World Trade Organization.

“This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures," Tai said in a statement, amid growing concern that big outbreaks in India could allow the rise of vaccine-resistant strains of the deadly virus, undermining a global recovery.

Shares in vaccine makers Moderna (NASDAQ:MRNA) Inc and Novavax (NASDAQ:NVAX) Inc dropped several percent in regular trade, although Pfizer Inc (NYSE:PFE) stock fell only slightly.

The head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, called Biden's move a "MONUMENTAL MOMENT IN THE FIGHT AGAINST #COVID19" on Twitter, and said it reflected "the wisdom and moral leadership of the United States."

Pharmaceutical companies working on vaccines have reported sharp revenue and profit gains during the crisis. The industry's biggest lobby group warned that Biden's unprecedented step would undermine the companies' response to the pandemic and compromise safety.

One industry source said U.S. companies would fight to ensure any waiver agreed upon was as narrow and limited as possible.

Robert W. Baird analyst Brian Skorney said he believed the waiver discussion amounted to grandstanding by the Biden administration and would not kick off a major change in patent law.

"I'm skeptical that it would have any sort of broader long- term impact across the industry," he said.

Biden backed a waiver during the 2020 presidential campaign in which he also promised to re-engage with the world after four years of contentious relations between former President Donald Trump and U.S. allies. Biden has come under intensifying pressure to share U.S. vaccine supply and technology to fight the virus around the globe.

His decision comes amid a devastating outbreak in India, which accounted for 46% of the new COVID-19 cases recorded worldwide last week, and signs that the outbreak is spreading to Nepal, Sri Lanka and other neighbors.

NEGOTIATIONS TO TAKE TIME

Wednesday's statement paved the way for what could be months of negotiations to hammer out a specific waiver plan. WTO decisions require a consensus of all 164 members.

Tai cautioned deliberations would take time but that the United States would also continue to push for increased production and distribution of vaccines - and raw materials needed to make them - around the world.

The United States and several other countries previously blocked negotiations at the WTO about a proposal led by India and South Africa to waive protections for some patents and technology and boost vaccine production in developing countries.

Critics of the waiver say producing COVID-19 vaccines is complex and setting up production at new facilities would divert resources from efforts to boost production at existing sites.

They say that pharmaceutical companies in rich and developing countries have already reached more than 200 technology transfer agreements to expand delivery of COVID-19 vaccines, a sign the current system is working.

The WTO meets again on Thursday, but it was not immediately clear if the U.S. decision would sway other opponents, including the European Union and Britain.

The U.S. government poured billions of dollars into research and advance purchases for COVID-19 vaccines last year when the shots were still in the early stages of development and it was unclear which, if any, would prove to be safe and effective at protecting against the virus.

Wednesday's move allows Washington to be responsive to the demands of the political left and developing countries, while using WTO negotiations to narrow the scope of the waiver, said one source familiar with the deliberations. It also buys time to boost vaccine supplies through more conventional means.

Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said such a patent waiver “amounts to the expropriation of the property of the pharmaceutical companies whose innovation and financial investments made the development of COVID-19 vaccines possible in the first place.”

But proponents say the pharmaceutical companies would suffer only minor losses because any waiver would be temporary - and they would still be able to sell follow-on shots that could be required for years to come.

Pfizer said on Tuesday it expects COVID-19 vaccine sales of at least $26 billion this year and that demand for the shots from governments around the world fighting to halt the pandemic could contribute to its growth for years to come.

U.S. backs giving poorer countries access to COVID-19 vaccine patents, reversing stance
 

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Comments (9)
Roger Miller
Roger Miller May 06, 2021 11:56AM ET
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Fine if it’s narrow and temporary in scope, unfortunately the left will seize the opportunity to make it wide ranging and permanent. Rarely is anything the government does temporary.
Roger Miller
Roger Miller May 06, 2021 11:56AM ET
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Remember a lot of peoples retirement funds are invested in pharmaceutical companies. Also in other publicly traded companies, remember this everytime Biden and the left go after corprate profits, they are essentially going after a portion of your retirement funds.
Picaso Fish
Picaso_Fish May 06, 2021 11:56AM ET
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Honestly... I think IP law and patent's are BS. Best remove them for more competition.
joe balone
joe balone May 06, 2021 11:56AM ET
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Picaso Fish and stifle innivation... sounds smart.
Hunter Gassaway
Hunter Gassaway May 06, 2021 11:56AM ET
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Profits over lives ( short and long term in the world). That's what Big Pharma and investors in those companies really mean. Such greed is incredible. We are talking 100,000 of lives over profit...integrity is lacking with some of our 'western developed ' mindset. We are doomed because of our greed.
Kaveh Sun
Kaveh Sun May 06, 2021 9:29AM ET
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China gets the most benefit here if they can make copied vaccines free. They will flood the world with their cheap coppies
Picaso Fish
Picaso_Fish May 06, 2021 9:29AM ET
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This mean's more competition for chinese vaccines.... it hurts china not helps it.china has it's own vaccine's they don't sell them to the usa though. They supply vaccine's to China, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.
Picaso Fish
Picaso_Fish May 06, 2021 9:29AM ET
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you have no idea what your talking about and likely, am wrapped up in dogma / propaganda
Vlad Lozovskiy
Vlad Lozovskiy May 06, 2021 8:47AM ET
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Yes, but US is a poorer nation with its debt of 30 trillion.
Anthony Anthony
Anthony Anthony May 06, 2021 7:38AM ET
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This guy is a communist
Ana Maria Cascalheiro
Ana Maria Cascalheiro May 06, 2021 6:24AM ET
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Biden Adm should provide access to vacines to other countries, but NOT IP patent waiver rights!!!It must be discussed how to help instead of giving-in to pressure...
Edward Snow
Edward Snow May 06, 2021 4:16AM ET
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Biden better hope they share a vaccine for dementia in return.
Edward Snow
Edward Snow May 06, 2021 4:15AM ET
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What has mass vaccination accomplished? Absolutely nothing. Cases are rising at all time highs, resistant strains rising at rapid rate, and the amount of adverse vaccine reactions and deaths has been higher in the past year than the entire past decade combined. This is what happens when you let politicians and the media fearmonger over a virus with low mortality rate so that the pharmaceutical companies can prosper and politicians can steal power.
Randy Randy
randy00 May 06, 2021 4:15AM ET
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Wow, you're a piece of work.
Anthony Cloud
Anthony Cloud May 06, 2021 4:15AM ET
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It proved half of the country can’t think for themselves...
Andrew Allen
Andrew Allen May 06, 2021 4:15AM ET
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I guess that's means we need to reduce eligible voters by half Anthony. Great idea! I want to see a proposal on my desk by the end of the week
simone scelsa
simone scelsa May 06, 2021 2:27AM ET
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If this goes ahead, we will have no vaccines for the next pandemic as no pharmaceutical company will be willing to invest any resouces in developing new vaccines. Rational thinking is a thing of the past.
Show previous replies (2)
Edward Snow
Edward Snow May 06, 2021 2:27AM ET
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Thuan Bui  Who funded? By government, you mean taxpayers. And what has mass vaccination accomplished? Absolutely nothing. Cases are rising at all time highs, resistant strains rising at rapid rate, and the amount of adverse vaccine reactions and deaths has been higher in the past year than the entire past decade combined.
Ogo Pogo
Ogo Pogo May 06, 2021 2:27AM ET
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Joel Schwartz this is how communism creeps in. The "drop in the bucket" will expand and knock on your door at some point, trust me, I come from a former communist country. This is how it starts, by stealing property. In this case the solution is affordable licensing, manufacturing, distribution agreements and NOT discussing about expropriating IP.
Brian Evanger
Brian Evanger May 06, 2021 2:27AM ET
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Edward Snow not in the US where infections are way less than in December and half the population now has one dose. It works, period.Get your facts straight and stop fearmongering.
Ogo Pogo
Ogo Pogo May 06, 2021 2:27AM ET
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Thuan Bui "most" pharmas? If you had been invested in biotech companies you'd know better. "Most" pharmas have been in the red for 2 months now. Everything has a cost, especially intellectual property. Everyone should pay the fair price for it. Progress does not come cheap. Take the incentives away and you'll end up in communism, a lovely regime where nobody cares to innovate because why would they? ... since the state can rip them off the results of their work. Be very careful what you wish for.
Thuan Bui
Thuan Bui May 06, 2021 2:27AM ET
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Ogo Pogo ermmm corporate earnings atm says otherwise... Just saw Moderna raise their revenue forecast
Zoran Petovic
Zoran Petovic May 06, 2021 2:14AM ET
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If this stands,Biden Will loose massive donations and after 4 years New President will be elected..
 
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