A proposal by the governments of India and South Africa to waive intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines and drugs is being opposed by the US biopharma industry. The proposal, submitted to the World Trade Organization (WTO) Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) last October, called for IP rights on COVID-19 vaccines and medicines to be suspended, to allow for compulsory licensing until the end of the pandemic crisis. World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a speech that he backs the proposal. “The flexibilities in the TRIPS agreement are there to be used in emergencies. If not now, then when?” But a group of developed countries including the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Japan and Norway, as well as the European Union, blocked WTO consideration of the proposal in December. In a letter to US president Joe Biden on 5 March, Michelle McMurry-Heath, president and CEO of the trade association BIO, called the proposal “both a wrong-headed and ineffective means of spurring further efforts at access.” And the lobbying group PHRMA also sent a letter, signed by 30 CEOs, urging the Biden administration to oppose the waiver, saying that eliminating IP protections would undermine the global response to the pandemic. The letter added that COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers are on track to supply 10 billion doses by the end of this year—enough to vaccinate the entire global vaccine-eligible population. Caught in the middle is WTO director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who has pressed for a ‘third way’ that “preserves the multilateral rules that encourage research and innovation while promoting licensing agreements to help scale-up manufacturing of medical products,” as she wrote in a Financial Times op-ed on 2 March.
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Waive COVID-19 IP rights, poor nations urge. Nat Biotechnol 39, 395 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41587-021-00905-8