ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Most of the world's COVID-19 vaccinations have gone to people in wealthy countries. More than 100 developing countries from India to South Africa have been asking the U.S. and other rich nations to waive patent protections to the vaccines. That would open the doors to the production of cheaper generic versions. Well today, the Biden administration said it supports a waiver of those intellectual property rights. Candidate Joe Biden promised as much last year.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Absolutely positively - this is the only humane thing in the world to do.
SHAPIRO: The announcement came as the World Trade Organization met today to consider such a proposal. And NPR's Jackie Northam joins us now with more.
JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: There's a long delay in your line, but we will muddle through. Tell us what the administration said today.
NORTHAM: Hi, Ari. Oh. Well, the U.S. trade representative, Katherine Tai, tweeted a statement that basically said, you know, yes, the U.S. strongly believes in intellectual property protections, but, you know, if we want to end the pandemic, we're going to have to suspend these patents. The statement went on to say that, you know, the administration's aim is to get as many safe and effective vaccines to as many people as possible and that, you know, there's enough supply here in the U.S. for Americans. So they're going to support waiving intellectual property protections so the rest of the world can have better access to the COVID vaccines.
SHAPIRO: There was an intense lobbying campaign that led up to this decision. Tell us about the arguments that each side was making.
NORTHAM: Well, Biden was under a lot of pressure to make a decision. On the one side, you know, there were other advanced economies and pharmaceutical companies that didn't want the patents waived. And, you know, on the other hand, people were saying these vaccines are a public good. You know, they're funded by U.S. taxpayer money. There are also petitions by world leaders and Nobel laureates and the like that back these waivers saying that it was the - morally, the right thing to do. And India and South Africa were leading the effort before the WTO to get these waivers, and dozens of other countries were also on board with it.
SHAPIRO: Earlier today, before the Biden administration made this decision, I spoke with South Africa's World Trade Organization councilor, Mustaqeem de Gama, and he said the Biden administration's support here would be crucial.
MUSTAQEEM DE GAMA: Well, the U.S. position is really, really important. It's a game changer. Every day we spend arguing about whether intellectual property is a barrier to access, people are dying. The influence that the Biden administration may have on these discussions would be instrumental.
SHAPIRO: So Jackie, tell us what that looks like. Now that the U.S. has reached a decision, what happens next?
NORTHAM: Well, nothing immediately. The way the WTO works is there needs to be a consensus amongst its roughly 160 members, and that there are many other countries that have signaled up until now that they will not support suspending intellectual property rights - there's Japan, Australia, the U.K., the E.U. So there's no guarantee just because the U.S. agrees with waiving the patent rights that other countries will. And until then, this is not a done deal.
SHAPIRO: We heard de Gama there say people are dying in the meantime, so explain why so many countries and pharmaceutical companies were so adamantly against this waiver to lift intellectual property rights.
NORTHAM: Well, there are a number of reasons. I mean, certainly for the pharmaceutical companies, you know, one big reason is that they're making a lot of money. Another is, you know, they say if these intellectual property protections are waived, then the companies will risk handing over highly innovative technology to, really, geopolitical rivals - you know, you think Russia and China. Shortly after the administration's announcement, an industry group, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, issued a statement saying that this, quote, "unprecedented step" will undermine U.S. response to the pandemic and compromise safety. And then they went on to make the same point that, you know, they could be handing over innovative technology to America's rivals.
SHAPIRO: So if the WTO does reach a consensus and suspend these waivers, what kind of a pace are we talking about for vaccinations around the world?
NORTHAM: It could still take a long time, Ari. You know, manufacturing plants need to be set up, expertise needs to be developed and there could also be a shortage of raw materials, so it's still a long ways off.
SHAPIRO: That is NPR's Jackie Northam.
Thank you very much.
NORTHAM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.