The Biden administration announced yesterday that it will support waiving intellectual property rights for coronavirus vaccines, a move aimed at more quickly getting the entire world vaccinated and ending the pandemic. US Trade Representative Katherine Tai announced the new policy in a statement, saying,

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,

As Rachel Maddow pointed out last night, the change in US policy had its roots in a July 2020 interview that then-candidate Joe Biden gave to healthcare activist Ady Barkan, who rose to prominence in the 2017 fight to prevent the repeal of Obamacare.

Barkan had pointed out that Donald Trump had refused to join the international effort to develop and share vaccines, and asked Biden, "If the US discovers a vaccine first, will you commit to sharing that technology with other countries? And will you ensure there are no patents to stand in the way of other countries and companies mass-producing those life-saving vaccines?"

Biden replied enthusiastically and without hesitation: "Absolutely, positively. This is the only humane thing in the world to do."

Biden made good on part of his pledge to Barkan right after being sworn in, with his executive order stopping the US from leaving the World Health Organization and joining Covax, WHO's program to get vaccines to the developing world.

Committing to waiving IP protections for vaccines took more time, but the decision was accelerated by the horrific explosion of coronavirus cases in India, which has been seeing 400,000 new cases per day in the last week. In April, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi discussed lifting the US patent protections in a call with Biden. Ramping up vaccine production through waiving IP restrictions is aimed at halting the spread of B.1.617, a highly infectious COVID variant first found in India, which has also been identified in the US.

Biden had already committed last week to making more raw materials for vaccines available to India's large pharmaceutical industry.

The Washington Post reports that Ambassador Tai had

spent weeks meeting with advocates and opponents of the proposal, which had divided the White House. Some administration officials focused on the domestic coronavirus response have cautioned that waiving protections on the vaccines could spark new competition for ingredients that could disrupt global production.

Up to now, the US had opposed an October 2020 World Trade Organization proposal, sponsored by South Africa and India, to waive IP rights temporarily until the pandemic was brought under control. An actual waiver plan would have to be agreed to by all 164 member nations of the WTO, and now that the US has committed to the process, those negotiations should go faster. On Twitter yesterday, Ady Barkan praised the administration's support of a waiver as "great news," and urged the US to make sure those negotiations don't get bogged down.

The administration's move has been opposed, predictably, by pharma companies and by Republicans, who have offered a range of arguments against the idea. Some of the claims are clearly dishonest, like the argument by a biotech CEO who said it would take years for other countries to build new factories and get them ready to produce vaccine — as if countries like India didn't already have a robust pharma industry. Same for the panic over China stealing US biotech secrets, which sometimes boils down to "Oh no, fewer people might die and China will take credit!"

Other claims, like the idea that drug companies simply won't bother developing new drugs if they can't have a guarantee of unlimited profits, sound a heck of a lot like the twaddle we hear from the GOP whenever any company anywhere faces regulation or taxes. The most compelling concern I've seen is that worldwide vaccine production could actually be slowed if too many players are competing for limited ingredients. That at least seems plausible, but it also sounds like the sort of thing that could be worked out in the WTO negotiations over the IP restrictions. (Let me hasten to add that I am not an international trade expert — but that Katherine Tai sure as hell is.)

Stocks for the three companies making vaccines for the US market dipped some yesterday, as the Post reports, but not disastrously so:

The stock prices for Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna fell sharply after the news broke on Wednesday afternoon, although they made partial recoveries before the end of trading. Pfizer's stock made an almost full recovery, closing almost flat on the day, while Moderna's stock fell by about 6 percent on the day as investors processed the change in policy. Johnson & Johnson's stock remained largely flat.

We have a sneaking feeling Big Pharma will somehow survive. More importantly, so will millions of people.

[AP / CNBC / Business Insider / WaPo / Reuters]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.


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