Biden’s Silence


Just over a year ago, on May 5, 2021, the Biden administration pledged to support “waiver of intellectual property protections for Covid-19 vaccines” at the World Trade Organization ( WTO), to expand global access to cheaper generic products. versions of vaccines.

At the second global summit on Covid-19 on May 12, co-hosted by the United States, Belize, Germany, Indonesia and Senegal, a key objective was “to accelerate collective efforts to shoot it”. Yet a group of top U.S. officials — President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, USAID Administrator Samantha Power and Secretary of State Antony Blinken — failed to mention the effort. WTO in their public remarks.

At the first global Covid-19 summit, which took place last September, the administration mentioned the need for a waiver on aspects of trade-related intellectual property rights (TRIPS) for vaccines like the one of his main takeaways. This time, efforts to suspend intellectual property rules at the WTO were notably absent from the White House summit fact sheet.

The omission at this second summit angered some public health activists. “Without addressing all of the barriers to sharing technology across the globe, the summit ends up being about charity (which remains woefully insufficient) instead of the justice we need to see,” Melinda St Louis, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, which monitors corporate power, told In These Times in an email.

Relatively early in the pandemic, in October 2020, India and South Africa proposed that the WTO suspend key intellectual property rules related to Covid-19 vaccines, tests and treatments, so that countries in the South can expand vaccine manufacturing to meet global needs. Yet that proposal has been stalled by European Union opposition and the Biden administration’s lack of aggressive action, despite the administration’s May 2021 commitment.

A new compromise agreement is currently circulating in the TRIPS Council, the body that governs intellectual property rules. But campaigners have called the text potentially more harmful than helpful, as it excludes testing and diagnostics, cuts off countries like China and all “developed” countries, and introduces new barriers to generic production. The United States and the European Union played a role in crafting some of the text’s most damaging provisions.

Prior to the Covid-19 World Summit, public health groups had called on Biden to reject the circulating text and adopt a full intellectual property waiver (commonly known as the TRIPS waiver). In a May 9 letter, more than 170 U.S.-based social justice, labor and interfaith organizations made the request, saying, “We need every tool we can to overcome barriers and improve equitable access to Covid-19 medical products”.

The stakes are high amid troubling global inequalities in access to Covid-19 vaccines, tests and treatments. Africa lags far behind the rest of the world in vaccination, with only 21.5% of its population having received a dose. This compares to 79 percent in the United States and Canada. According to a recent estimate by the World Health Organization, almost 15 million people died as a direct result of Covid-19, or due to its deterioration of public health systems between January 2020 and December 2021 – a number which is more than double the official toll.

US Trade Representative Katherine Tai is currently consulting with various parties and organizations on the text of an intellectual property agreement. This could, in part, explain the silence of senior officials. Yet other countries also considering the text have used their platforms to speak out in favor of a strong waiver.

“We continue to advocate for a waiver of the TRIPS Agreement at the WTO to improve global access to vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics so that the goal of having vaccines manufactured locally be achieved,” South African President Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa said, making a clear call for a larger, robust waiver for all Covid-19 health products, not just vaccines. This contrasts with the limited proposal currently circulating in the TRIPS Council.

Excerpt: “Biden’s silence on an intellectual property waiver speaks volumes.”

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