Divisions within the Biden administration persist over whether to ease some patent restrictions on vaccines, according to people familiar with the matter, as the President nears a decision on loosening some intellectual property rules on pharmaceutical products, a move that could expand global vaccine supply.
Officials said an announcement on the administration’s position could come over the next 48 hours as the World Trade Organization begins a meeting to discuss the matter. President Joe Biden has faced similar scrutiny over how and when he will distribute surplus vaccines doses abroad, with some advocates accusing him of not doing enough to help struggling countries like India vaccinate their populations.
The patent debate has pitted some of the administration’s health and development experts against those inside the White House who are wary of angering major drug manufacturers like Pfizer and Moderna, whose products have allowed the country to begin returning to normal, according to people familiar with the internal dynamics.
Others inside the administration are concerned at the optics of Biden reversing a pledge he made as a candidate to “absolutely positively” commit to sharing vaccine technology if elected president. And some have voiced concern at appearing overly deferential to big pharmaceutical companies against the wishes of progressives.
One option that has emerged, according to officials, is using the patent issue as leverage with vaccine makers to nudge them into ramping up global manufacturing capacity and donating or selling doses at drastically reduced cost.
The debate has landed at the feet of US Trade Representative Katherine Tai, who has been gathering information on the topic before representing the United States at a meeting of the World Trade Organization’s General Council that gets underway Wednesday. The White House said Tai would make a recommendation to Biden on whether to support a petition in front of the WTO sponsored by India and South Africa to waive an intellectual property agreement on pharmaceutical products.
Outside aid groups, liberal Democrats in Congress and other world leaders have all called on Biden to support easing some patent restrictions on vaccines. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi raised the issue in a phone call with Biden last week. And supporters of the move planned a rally in Washington on Wednesday to further pressure Biden.
Still, some of his advisers have voiced concern at throwing the global supply chain into flux at a time Americans are still getting shots. And others, including some health advisers, have downplayed the effect that easing patent rules would have on actually getting vaccines to the rest of the world, citing the specialized materials and technology needed to create the products.
On Sunday, chief of staff Ron Klain acknowledged that intellectual property rights were part of the problem of worldwide vaccine shortages, but that bigger issues lay in manufacturing. He said the White House would have more to reveal in the “days to come.”
Biden told reporters Tuesday he hadn’t decided how to proceed.
“We’re going to decide that as we go along,” Biden said when asked whether he’d consulted with Tai on the matter. He said the US was “going to move as quickly as we can to get as many doses of Moderna and Pfizer as possibly can be produced, and export those around the world.”
Tai has spent the past several weeks meeting with the heads of major US drugmakers and health experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, to learn more about the issue ahead of the WTO meeting.
Speaking at a Council of the Americas summit on Tuesday, Tai noted the importance in “making the vaccine widely available and addressing the global inequity in vaccine access.”
“This is not just a public health requirement. Our economic recovery depends on it,” she said.
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