Op-Ed: Sacrificing Efficiency, Science and Multilateralism for Signaling Virtue – The Perils of the Biden WTO Waiver | Opinion
The Biden administration wants to improve America’s international reputation. This is why he endorsed a proposal before the World Trade Organization to renounce all intellectual property rights related to Covid-19.
The president intends that this offer be seen as a generous gesture that his predecessor “America First” would never have made.
Yet this approval is a signal of toothless virtue at best – and a dangerous economic capitulation at worst.
He took our European allies by surprise. EU countries, especially Germany, do not support the proposed waiver. Even the WTO did not fully agree with the original proposal, which would have applied to a wide range of medical and diagnostic equipment.
The easiest way for America to strengthen its international position is to serve as a global “arsenal” of vaccines, to quote President Biden. His administration has already pledged to donate over a billion of our excess doses to developing countries.
Relinquishing intellectual property rights, on the other hand, will not boost vaccine supply – for a number of legal and logistical reasons. The 164 members of the WTO must agree for the proposals to enter into force. A similar effort to fight patents and the HIV epidemic was launched in 2001 and was not finally accepted until 2017.
Even if the waiver ultimately obtains the unanimous consent of major supplier countries and the developing world, there are major obstacles that will prevent it from boosting supply.
First, most facilities that can produce vaccines already do. The Serum Institute in India, the world’s largest vaccine maker, says it is on track to produce one billion doses this year. Aspen Pharmacare, South Africa’s largest generic manufacturer, is on track to produce hundreds of millions of doses.
Second, the supply bottleneck currently stems from a shortage of raw inputs, not IP protections. When a Guardian reporter asked the CEO of the Serum Institute if he agreed with the charge that “developers who hold vaccine patents have allowed too few manufacturers to make them?” the general manager replied categorically: “No. There are enough manufacturers. [production]. “
Third, there are few scientists and engineers who fully understand the know-how behind mRNA vaccines. If the waiver was implemented, governments would have to work with brand manufacturers to transfer this know-how and possibly force the transfer of their senior managers. All of these problems could take months, if not years, to resolve.
In other words, the waiver will not increase vaccine production, and certainly not in time to quell outbreaks of Covid-19 or new variants in developing countries. But it could cede leading US technology to our competitors and cripple our ability to meet future challenges.
There has been a remarkable bipartisan concern about the theft of intellectual property from China and other countries.
Now it looks like we would eliminate the risk of theft by donating the technology. It is astounding that the Biden administration is making it more likely that future medical breakthroughs will come with a “Made in China” label. After all, mRNA has many potential uses beyond Covid-19. Scientists are already testing whether the technology could prevent cancer and HIV.
Today, the transfer of intellectual property rights risks more than economic competitiveness. It also jeopardizes the ability of the United States to respond safely and effectively to pandemics of the future for all.
Mark Cohen is director of the Asia IP project at the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology at the University of California at Berkeley. This article originally appeared in the International Business Times