One of Joe Biden’s top coronavirus advisers has warned that forcing drug companies to abandon intellectual property rights to Covid-19 vaccines risks backfiring if it leads to long legal disputes.
Dr Anthony Fauci, the chief medical adviser to the US president, told the Financial Times that he would oppose a plan to rip up international trade rules in hopes of improving vaccine supply in the developing world if it took too long to bear fruit.
The Biden administration is expected to set out its position on intellectual property rights this week during a World Trade Organization meeting.
Fauci told the FT on Monday that he was “agnostic” about how to boost vaccine supply to developing countries. But he added: “Going back and forth, consuming time and lawyers in a legal argument about waivers — that is not the endgame. People are dying around the world and we have to get vaccines into their arms in the fastest and most efficient way possible.”
The proposal to allow countries to temporarily override patent rights for Covid-19-related medical products was put forward at the WTO by India and South Africa in October. The plan was designed to help developing countries make copies of the vaccines without fear of being sued. It has been backed by almost 60 countries, more than 100 members of the US Congress and several former world leaders.
Many experts have argued that radical action is needed to supply developing countries with Covid-19 vaccines, especially with the world’s worst outbreak taking place in India, which has only fully vaccinated 2 per cent of its population.
Pharmaceutical companies have fought back, warning that there were not enough vaccine materials to open up manufacturing globally and that doing so would hinder innovation in the long run.
The companies also said a waiver would be fraught with legal complications, setting up potential conflicts with existing national laws and bilateral arrangements.
The Biden administration said last month that it was considering the waiver proposal, with Fauci reportedly a prominent backer of the idea.
But he told the FT on Monday that he was not wedded to it, and did not want anything to stand in the way of getting vaccines to the developing world more quickly.
“If you take too long, people are going to die,” he said. “There are other ways to ramp up vaccine production around the world.”
Some experts have advocated for companies to be forced or incentivised to share their technology with manufacturers, if not to give up their patents entirely.
Fauci warned however that this could mean doses would not be produced until 2023.
Instead, he said companies should be encouraged to increase production in the west and export doses, as some have begun to do.
Pfizer has reportedly shipped 10m doses to Mexico, while the White House has promised to export 60m doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which it has bought but which have not yet been approved for use in the US.
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