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Biden Administration Waives off Vaccine Patent Protection

Facing strong opposition from the pharmaceutical industry, the Biden Administration took an extraordinary move on Wednesday toward sharing COVID-19 vaccines that are covered by US patents with the rest of the world, by endorsing a World Trade Organization proposal to waive those safeguards. It was a complete 180-degree turn for the US, which had previously worked to block a similar plan during WTO talks last year.

Bill Gates, the recently divorced Microsoft founder and influential global-health philanthropist, has spent most of the pandemic battling tooth and nail to protect the intellectual property laws that restrict vaccine manufacturing and distribution to mostly affluent Western nations.

Katherine Tai, US Trade Representative, said, “This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures. The Biden Administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections, but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for COVID-19 vaccines.”

Officials were quick to point out that the United States’ support does not guarantee that the proposal will be adopted — members of the World Trade Organization must agree unanimously to waive pharmaceutical patent rights, and although the United States is the most visible holdout on the subject, other countries have expressed reservations as well.

Developing countries, however, were relieved to hear the news, as hundreds of them had lobbied for the measure since the pandemic started early last year. Many on the political left in the United States have painted the battle for patent waivers as a moral necessity, one that is needed to avoid the spread of COVID-19 across the world before vaccine-resistant strains arise.

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