The US has signalled that it will participate in discussions which may result in a temporary waiver of some IP rights relating to COVID-19 vaccines.

A statement from the office of US Trade Representative Katherine Tai on 5 May 2021 comments that the Biden-Harris Administration “believes strongly in intellectual property protections, but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for COVID-19 vaccines. We will actively participate in text-based negotiations at the World Trade Organization (WTO) needed to make that happen.”

Such a waiver is seen by some as a way to boost the supply of vaccines, particularly in less wealthy countries.

It is not clear what the scope and duration of any waiver would be, but Ambassador Tai indicated that the negotiations “will take time given the consensus-based nature of the institution and the complexity of the issues involved”.

Critics of the development have commented that patent systems are not generally the main barriers against increased vaccine rollout, that many agreements have already been reached to enhance vaccine delivery, and that monopolies provided by IP rights are necessary incentives to encourage considerable investment and innovation by pharmaceutical companies.

It will be interesting to see how this matter develops, as countries like the US grapple with the tensions between: on the one hand public policy and the need to find equitable ways of dealing with the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 global health crisis; and on the other hand the need to work effectively with private companies to develop medical solutions under accelerated timescales.

Author: Robert Gregory, Director