United against a Global Problem

President Joe Biden is determined to reposition the United States as a leading country in international cooperation initiatives, a role that was lost during the isolationist administration of his predecessor, Donald Trump. Faced with the major global threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, Biden has promoted a historic shift in the U.S. position on pharmaceutical patents. This is a move that could lead to a change in the posture of other nations.

On May 5, U.S. Trade Representative Ambassador Katherine Tai announced the American government’s decision to support the suspension of intellectual property rights over vaccines against COVID-19. The effort to secure such a waiver was led by India and South Africa in the World Trade Organization and supported by the World Health Organization. The aim is to facilitate technology transfer and increase the availability of COVID-19 vaccines in poor and developing countries.

The change in the American government’s position is historic because, traditionally, the United States did not even consider a discussion of breaking patents, given that the largest pharmaceutical and technology companies in the world are American. Therefore, the negative reaction of the so-called Big Pharma to the White House’s change in tone was not surprising.

“This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures. The administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections, but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for COVID-19 vaccines,” said Tai. The ambassador also said that the country will “actively participate” in the negotiations at the WTO in order to allow the objectives pursued with the suspension of patents on vaccines to be achieved.

In the past, the European Union, also home to large pharmaceutical companies, has also expressed a position against patent waivers. Now it seems inclined to follow Washington’s new direction. President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen said that the suspension of intellectual property rights over vaccines could be one of the “effective and pragmatic” solutions to increase the COVID-19 immunization rate worldwide.

Brazil, which had maintained its position against the waiver of vaccine patents, “welcomed the willingness of the USA to negotiate a multilateral solution that contributes to the fight against COVID-19 within the scope of the WTO.” On May 7, after meeting with Tai, Chancellor Carlos França stated that the Brazilian government “will discuss its new position with the U.S. in greater depth, and also the practical implications for facilitating ample and urgent access to vaccines and medicines to counter COVID-19.”

There are reasonable doubts about the practical effect of suspending vaccine patents. Will developing nations be able to quickly produce technically complex vaccines such as, for example, those from Pfizer and Moderna which are based on COVID-19 messenger RNA? At present, Brazil can produce two vaccines: Coronavac (Instituto Butantan) and Covishield (Fiocruz), both with less complex technology. Even so, there are difficulties in local production caused by the attacks that President Jair Bolsonaro directs against China, a major supplier of necessary ingredients for the production of these vaccines.

Despite these practical difficulties, the suspension of patents is a welcome initiative. As former senator and minister of health José Serra said, with the authority of those who acted in the past to eliminate patents for antiviral drugs that have made Brazil a reference for treating AIDS: “We live in an atypical moment, and massive profits cannot be above life.”

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