TRIPS waiver opposition and alternatives take shape | American Enterprise Institute
By Michael Rosen
The decision by the Joe Biden White House to support waiving intellectual property protections for COVID-19-related vaccines and treatments continues to reverberate.
We recently examined the second-order reactions to the ill-advised proposal to suspend the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), including significant opposition among surveyed Americans, stout resistance by some in Europe, and lengthy expected delays in implementing its provisions.
Antagonism to the measure continues to grow, as The Wall Street Journal reported that vaccine manufacturers have begun actively and directly lobbying various governments against endorsing it at the WTO.
Pfizer reportedly wrote a letter to Australian authorities proclaiming that a TRIPS waiver would represent “a distraction from the real solutions to improve vaccine access.” In an open letter published on Pfizer’s website, company chairman and CEO Albert Bourla emphasized that “fair and equitable distribution was our North Star from day one” and noted that “the proposed waiver for COVID-19 vaccines threatens to disrupt the flow of raw materials” and “unleash a scramble for the critical inputs we require in order to make a safe and effective vaccine.”
Meanwhile, a group of over 100 Republican lawmakers sent a letter urging President Biden to rescind his support for the “disastrous and counterproductive” TRIPS suspension. They argued that “waiving the IP protections would only serve to undermine innovation and make it even more difficult for industry to respond to both the current pandemic and future health emergencies,” as well as “set a terrible precedent and disincentivize companies from further investment in such research” while doing “very little to increase the global manufacture of COVID-19 vaccines.”
In parallel, the EU has begun formulating an alternative to the waiver that may end up forging consensus at the WTO. Initially, European Council President Charles Michel declared last month in the wake of the announcement that “we don’t think in the short term that it’s the magic bullet.”
And earlier this week, The Journal reported that “Brussels’ alternative plan would lift export restrictions on vaccines and their raw materials, expand manufacturing capacity around the world, and make it easier for countries to use existing rules to override patents in some cases.”
According to a draft of the plan, which The Journal reviewed, the EU has determined that “the rules-based global trading system can contribute to expanding the production of and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics.”
The European plan would work to optimize the byzantine guidelines surrounding TRIPS rather than waive their protections altogether. “Instead of negotiations which will not lead anywhere,” an EU official told The Journal, “it makes more sense to look at the options we have available on which everybody can agree.” Similarly, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that “the EU proposes concrete short and medium-term solutions to ensure universal access at affordable prices.”
At the same time, other countries have recently voiced their support for the waiver. Last week, China, Ukraine, and New Zealand announced they would back the proposal while Australia, the UK, Japan, Singapore, Brazil, South Korea, Norway, and Switzerland have backed the EU’s opposition.
Ultimately, if the waiver proposal is little more than a spur to push vaccine manufacturers to pump out doses faster (as we surmised previously), then the gambit is working. But it needn’t have been attempted in the first place.