Ambassador Katharine Tai made a surprise announcement on Wednesday that the U.S. would support a temporary waiver of intellectual property rights for the COVID-19 vaccine. Although activists had been pressuring the White House for such a move, it was largely regarded as a longshot even by supporters, but Tai said in a tweet that “these extraordinary times and circumstances of call for extraordinary measures.”
“The Administration’s aim is to get as many safe and effective vaccines to as many people as fast as possible,” Tai said in a statement. “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.”
These extraordinary times and circumstances of call for extraordinary measures.
— Ambassador Katherine Tai (@AmbassadorTai) May 5, 2021
The devil will, as always, be in the details, as it will take more than just U.S. support to secure such a waiver from the World Trade Organization. But Tai’s announcement is an extraordinary step. So what’s it all mean?
First up, the waiver in question was proposed by South Africa and India — countries that have struggled to secure enough vaccines for their populations. The idea is that such a waiver would help remove the financial obstacles to getting enough vaccines, particularly for nations that don’t have the same resources as countries like the U.S. If the IP protections were waived, the expense would be significantly reduced. India, in particular, is suffering from a huge and devastating COVID-19 surge and is in dire need of a lot of vaccines very quickly to address its cumulative 20 million-odd cases.
That would come at a cost to companies like Moderna, BioNTech and Pfizer that produced the vaccines and have a patent on the intellectual property for making more of them. News of a potential waiver sent their respective stocks plummeting, as expected, though these companies have already raked in profits from their vaccine breakthroughs. Pfizer alone brought in about $900 million in the first quarter of 2021.
There are 164 members of the World Trade Organization and all decisions are based on consensus, so the U.S. can’t unilaterally make this decision. But the Biden Administration’s support is likely to boost the waiver’s odds significantly.