WASHINGTON (AP) — It won’t speed the manufacture of vaccines. It enraged the developers who delivered lifesaving doses in record time. But President Joe Biden’s decision to support waiving intellectual property rights for coronavirus shots had a broader purpose: to broadcast his administration’s commitment to global leadership.
More than a month of internal debate led up to Biden’s decision this week to endorse international calls to strip patent protections for vaccines.
The policy shift, embraced by many charitable service organizations around the world and liberals at home, wasn’t new. Biden endorsed it during his campaign for the White House. But the idea was the subject of tense discussions inside the administration over how best to bring the pandemic to an end while restoring U.S. influence abroad.
In the best case, officials acknowledge it will take at least a year for any additional vaccines to be produced due to the change. Key European leaders are adamantly opposed to the waivers, and securing the required consensus at the World Trade Organization many never happen.
The specialized production, particularly of the cutting-edge mRNA vaccines made by Pfizer /zigman2/quotes/202877789/composite PFE -0.39% with German partner BioNTech /zigman2/quotes/214419716/composite BNTX +0.82% /zigman2/quotes/222361179/delayed XE:22UA 0.00% and Moderna /zigman2/quotes/205619834/composite MRNA +0.46% , would take even longer. Moreover, the matter could become less pressing if vaccine manufacturers can produce enough to satisfy international demand themselves.
To Biden, White House officials said, that’s largely beside the point, as officials cast the decision as indicative of the president’s efforts to return the U.S. to the position of leadership after four years of unilateralism and protectionism under the former president, Donald Trump.
“This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures,” U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai said Wednesday in announcing the move.
The announcement was met with surprise and disappointment by some of Biden’s closest European allies. German Chancellor Angela Merkel quickly weighed in against it, with a government spokesman saying it would cause “severe complications” for the production of vaccines.
The timing of the decision also blindsided the vaccine companies, which had aggressively discouraged the administration from making a choice they feel will hurt American producers.
Officials noted, however, that Tai held more than two dozen meetings with stakeholders, including the drug manufacturers.
Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo also opposed the plan but was excluded from the final meeting, two people familiar with the decision-making process but not authorized to speak publicly about private deliberations said on condition of anonymity. Other White House officials highlighted the practical limitations of Biden’s decision, but the symbolism won the day.
Trade groups warned it could curtail future investment in lifesaving drugs, and vaccine manufacturers and some Republican lawmakers warned that it would amount to a giveaway of American technological knowhow to China. Vaccine manufacturing historically has not been a huge profit driver for drug makers.
“The Chinese Communist Party is already celebrating this gift from President Biden,” tweeted Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, as he highlighted a comment from a Chinese official praising Biden’s action.
A vaccine manufactured by a Chinese company was given emergency-use authorization Friday by the World Health Organization , potentially creating a pathway for millions of the doses to reach needy countries through a U.N.-backed program rolling out coronavirus vaccines.
The decision by a WHO technical advisory group — a first for a Chinese vaccine — opens the possibility that Sinopharm’s offering could be included in the U.N.-backed COVAX program in coming weeks or months and distributed through UNICEF and the WHO’s Americas regional office.
But U.S. vaccine manufacturers also warned that the Biden administration’s move could hurt the global supply of shots in the near to medium term.