Senate Dems call for COVID-19 vaccine patent waivers at WTO

Coronavirus Vaccine

Unidentified teen from Tijuana getting COVID-19 vaccine at Mexico’s Consulate in San Diego. (Salvador Rivera/Border Report)

(The Hill) — A group of nine senators who caucus with Democrats, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), is pressing the Biden administration to push for a waiver of international intellectual property rules for vaccines at the upcoming World Trade Organization (WTO) ministerial conference. 

In a letter sent Tuesday, the senators urged President Joe Biden to work with other world leaders, especially those from the European Union, to reach an agreement on a “meaningful waiver” that would boost production of COVID-19 vaccines for the developing world.

“By securing a waiver agreement at the WTO Ministerial, your Administration can demonstrate real and impactful American global leadership,” the lawmakers wrote. “If the Ministerial Conference cannot deliver a solution, the WTO — and the wealthy nations blocking the waiver — will continue to lose credibility with the developing world. We urge you to seize this opportunity to engage actively and productively at the WTO [to] deliver on your promise to defeat the pandemic.”

The letter was also signed by Democratic Sens. Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Ed Markey (Mass.), Chris Murphy (Conn.), Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Ben Ray Luján (N.M.) and Jeff Merkley (Ore.).

The administration in May said it backed a temporary waiver of international patent protections for COVID-19 vaccines, but little progress has been made since, the lawmakers wrote.

“The United States and European Union nations have provided billions to pharmaceutical companies for the development and distribution of the most effective vaccines. Despite this public investment, the intellectual property is now privately held, pitting pharmaceutical profits against public health interests,” they wrote. 

Democrats and international advocates argue Biden has a moral imperative to help the world, and that sharing vaccine intellectual property is the best way to do it. They say higher vaccination rates in developing countries can save lives and reduce the likelihood of new variants that could jeopardize progress on the pandemic. 

“A waiver will unlock local production of vaccines in developing countries, which is necessary both to overcome absolute shortfalls in supply and to ensure people in the developing world have reliable access to vaccines. The only way to end the pandemic is to increase vaccination rates to ensure that new variants cannot emerge from mass outbreaks,” the lawmakers wrote. 

The waiver would temporarily lift patent and other intellectual property protections to help expand the production and deployment of vaccines during supply shortages. 

The debate has exploded in the U.S., as dire scenes in low-income countries contrast with the reality in America, where millions of people are getting vaccinated daily with first doses as well as booster shots.

Biden had been under mounting pressure from lawmakers in his own party; 110 House Democrats wrote to the president earlier this year, urging him to support the waiver.

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