US recovery from the Covid pandemic is in “jeopardy” unless the Biden administration supports making treatment and testing for the disease more readily available to low-income countries, a powerful congressional group has warned Joe Biden.
In a letter to Joe Biden led by congressman Earl Blumenauer, chairman of the subcommittee on trade, the group urged the president to extend a June World Trade Organisation (WTO) agreement aimed at easing exports of generic vaccines to treatments and therapeutics.
The letter comes ahead of what is expected to be a contentious meeting of the WTO council for trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights that starts on Thursday, where the proposals will be discussed.
As more contagious variants of the disease emerge it is “critically important” that the US backs the agreement to ease access to therapeutics and treatments for poorer nations, the group writes.
The proposals are being championed by South Africa and India but face stiff opposition from the pharmaceutical industry and Switzerland and the UK.
In June the WTO reached a limited agreement to facilitate exports of generic Covid vaccines made under compulsory licenses – a license issued by a government to a third party to produce a patented medicine when the patent owner has refused a voluntary license. The WTO proposed extending the agreement to treatment and testing within six months.
Critics of the original deal argued it was too little, too late and said a broad waiver for intellectual property rights on Covid vaccines and treatments was needed to stem the deadly pandemic, which has now infected more than 619 million people worldwide and caused more than 6.5 million deaths, according to John Hopkins.
Max Lawson, co-chair of the People’s Vaccine Alliance and head of inequality policy at Oxfam, called it “a technocratic fudge aimed at saving reputations, not lives”.
But some were hopeful that the US would support an extension to treatments and testing, seen as a high priority as the coronavirus continues to ravage countries where vaccination rates are still low. Just 19% of people in low-income countries are vaccinated compared with 75% in high-income countries, according to the Multilateral Leaders Taskforce on Covid-19.
“It is critically important that the United States announce support for the extension and join with our allies South Africa and India to forcefully advocate to extend the decision to diagnostics and therapeutics,” the congressional group told Biden.
“Emerging Covid-19 variants are more contagious than ever and are mutating quickly. Extending the decision to therapeutics and thus making them more available will reduce rates of serious illness, hospitalization, and death, which is especially important in low-income countries where only a small percentage of the population has been vaccinated. Likewise, more widely available diagnostics will slow the spread of new variants by alerting individuals and public health officials of outbreaks so countermeasures can be employed, and treatments can be provided within the key window.”
Industry groups have opposed any relaxation of intellectual property (IP) rights on therapeutics and testing, arguing it will disincentivize the industry and weaken IP protections overall.
The US Chamber of Commerce has been highly critical of the WTO’s original decision, calling it “a solution in search of a problem” and arguing that intellectual property rights “helped deliver Covid-19 vaccines in record time, and today the world is awash in vaccine doses”.
In a letter to the Biden administration, the US Chamber of Commerce said it also had “serious concerns” regarding any extension of the agreement, arguing it would further undermine intellectual property (IP) rights around the world.
“The proposal for an expanded waiver now under consideration by WTO members further threatens US leadership in biotechnology and other key sectors, including digital, green, and agricultural technology, by reinforcing a precedent for the ready expropriation of IP,” it wrote.
Lori Wallach, director of Rethink Trade at the American Economic Liberties Project, said: “Big pharma killed the waiver of intellectual property monopolies in the first instance and are now greedily seeking to stop the modest WTO agreement to help export generic treatment and test made in compliance with WTO rules in a way that could devastate people’s lives while increasing big pharma’s profits.”