Did the Biden administration participate in closed-door meetings with foreign officials to deal away some of America’s most valuable intellectual property? It appears so.
According to a letter sent by six senators to U.S. Trade Ambassador Katherine Tai on May 10, the Biden administration negotiated a proposal with the European Union, India and South Africa to suspend IP protections for COVID-19 vaccines without consulting Congress like it’s supposed to.
The senators condemn her for negotiating behind their backs. They’re right to be incensed. Ambassador Tai’s failure to “provide Congress with timely, substantive briefings on [trade] negotiations” flies in the face of well-established precedent.
What’s more, seizing the IP of the companies that invented the COVID vaccines and giving it to developing nations will do nothing to improve vaccine access worldwide. It will, however, shake confidence in the patent system that makes continued medical innovation possible, slowing progress toward new treatments and cures for some of today’s deadliest illnesses.
Since 2020, representatives from South Africa and India have been pushing the World Trade Organization to waive certain provisions of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, or TRIPS. They claim they need access to the IP to produce COVID vaccines in sufficient quantities for their people.
That request was absurd back in 2020, at the peak of the pandemic. And it’s even less defensible today.
For starters, there’s a glut of COVID vaccines in the countries agitating for the waiver. Earlier this month, a South African vaccine plant announced it might soon close after failing to receive even a single order for its shots.
In India, vaccine stockpiles have grown so large that the Serum Institute of India — the world’s largest vaccine maker — stopped turning out doses in December.
The real barriers to vaccine access in poorer parts of the world are often logistical. Many regions lack the infrastructure needed to transport vaccine supplies to patients, the health care professionals to administer those shots, and the cooling technologies needed to store temperature-sensitive medicines.
Then there are the effects of vaccine hesitancy and artificial trade barriers.
Waiving IP protections on COVID vaccines will not address these problems. Then again, expanding vaccine access isn’t the real motivation behind the TRIPS waiver.
Supporters of the policy are simply looking for an excuse to expropriate IP from the American pharmaceutical industry — and to do so with the permission of the WTO’s 164 member states, the United States among them.
Astonishingly, the Biden administration seems poised to meet these demands. The draft proposal from the USTR agrees to waive IP protections on COVID vaccines in developing countries within the WTO.
Member states that were responsible for more than 10% of global COVID vaccine exports last year are not eligible for the waiver, though China is currently challenging that exception. The proposal comes up for a vote at the WTO’s 12th Ministerial Conference in Switzerland in mid-June.
The USTR has dubbed the draft agreement a “compromise outcome,” a phrase that is more accurate than she realizes. By handing over the IP of American biotech firms to foreign nations, the Biden administration is compromising the rules and institutions that make medical innovation possible in the first place.
If the United States government is willing to endorse the theft of drug patents, then funding for the next breakthrough therapy will quickly dry up. Investors will see such ventures as unacceptably risky. Why fund drug research with a high risk of failure if the government can seize the fruits of that research at any moment?
Companies like Moderna, Pfizer, BioNTech, and Johnson & Johnson risked billions of dollars developing the technologies behind today’s COVID vaccines. The world is lucky they did.
If the WTO agrees to waive the IP rights undergirding COVID vaccines, then our current era of medical progress may come to a swift end.