The United States’ support of waiving intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines is a “major first step” to aiding global efforts to end the pandemic, one health expert says, but now it’s time for Canada to follow suit.
Ananya Tina Banerjee, assistant professor in global health at McGill University, said she was “pleasantly surprised” by the announcement from the United States on Wednesday.
“And we are hoping now Canada will join forces with the U.S. to really expand production of lifesaving shots around the world,” she said.
In a statement Wednesday, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai said the COVID-19 pandemic is “a global health crisis” and that 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,” the statement read.
Tai said the U.S. will “actively participate in text-based negotiations” at the World Trade Organization (WTO).
The waiver, if approved by the WTO, would enable patent-freRace, widespread manufacturing of COVID-19 medicines and vaccines. Tai’s statement, though, only noted COVID-19 vaccines.
The United States and several other countries had previously blocked negotiations at the WTO about the waiver proposal led by India and South Africa.
Banerjee explained that waiving pharmaceutical company’s vaccine patents will enable countries — especially in low to middle income countries — to produce generic versions of the COVID-19 vaccines.
“This will help to prevent regions of the globe to prevent a deadly pandemic wave, as we are seeing in India, based on just the exponential surge of cases and deaths,” she said.
Banerjee said she thinks the move by the U.S. will put “intense pressure on Canada” to follow suit.
What has the Canadian government said?
The federal government, however, has not yet indicated whether it will support the waiver.
In a series of tweets on Wednesday afternoon, Canada’s Trade Minister Mary Ng said the country “looks forward to working with the U.S. on finding solutions to ensure a just and speedy global recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Ng said Canada continues to “work with international partners” and is “actively supporting the WTO’s efforts to accelerate global vaccine production and distribution.”
“Canada has always been, and remains a strong advocate for equitable access to affordable, safe, effective COVID-19 vaccines and medical supplies around the world,” Ng wrote.
A spokesperson for Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau said the agency had nothing else to add to Ng’s statement.
Others, though, like World Health Organization head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, praised the Biden administration calling the move a “monumental moment in the fight against #COVID-19.”
“The commitment by @POTUS Joe Biden & @USTradeRep @AmbassadorTai to support the waiver of IP protections on vaccines is a powerful example of (American) leadership to address global health challenges,” Tedros wrote in a tweet.
More to be done
Rachel Silverman, a fellow at the Center for Global Development, said while the announcement means the Biden Administration will now enter negotiations at the WTO, “it does not necessarily mean the waiver proposal will pass.”
“There are still other countries that are hold outs, including some very important and powerful countries,” she said.
WTO decisions require a consensus of all 164 members.
But Silverman, like Banerjee, said the announcement from the Biden administration could “provide some momentum that might help get other countries on board.”
Ultimately, Silverman said the move Wednesday “signals the Biden administration is really taking the pandemic seriously and is willing to act in ways that break existing norms and pattern in order to do so.”
“I think it signals a level of seriousness about the imperative for global cooperation on this measure and the importance of vaccinating the world,” she continued.
Silverman said while the move is “very useful negotiating leverage,” it by itself is “not a solution to the question of scaling up vaccine access.”
“I’m hopeful that it signals the beginning of increased steps for vaccine ramp-up that would actually make a practical difference, including more funding, working with companies to do technology transfer to developing countries and other stuff like that,” she said.
What Silverman said she would like to see now is the Biden administration engage in “hard-nosed negotiations” regarding how they can scale-up their production to meet the needs of the world and “share knowhow around the world.”
“I am very happy for them to be compensated generously for doing so,” she said. “But the knowledge needs to be shared and we need to be serving the global entire population.”
Banerjee too, said Canada should “take lead” and support the waiver, but said scaling up the production of the vaccines will require “more than just a waiver of intellectual property.”
“But (the) Canadian government’s support of the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 technology access pool C-TAP to facilitate knowledge sharing — that’s absolutely essential,” she said.
Banerjee also said Canada should not relying on shots through COVAX — a global initiative aimed at equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines — to innoculate its population.
-With files from Reuters