The U.S. government’s announcement Wednesday that it will enter negotiations to waive World Trade Organization (WTO) intellectual property rules is a victory for democratizing technology, for rebalancing power toward governments and away from corporations, and for the power of countries working together to fight the global pandemic. This may also be the most significant departure from the U.S. government’s longstanding commitment to global pharmaceutical monopolies since that regime was first introduced via NAFTA negotiations 30 years ago.
President Biden and U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai have shown compassion toward the world with this pivotal decision.
When the waiver negotiations succeed—and they must be conducted rapidly—countries will have a blanket reprieve from WTO rules that define how and when they can make or import generic medical products needed to fight the pandemic. The scope of that waiver, including for example whether it will cover treatments as well as vaccines, is still to be determined.
Yet there is much more to be done to get COVID vaccines to the people who need them.
More than one year into the pandemic, a year of global suffering and death, there still is no plan from world leaders to end it; no plan from national leaders anywhere to vaccinate everyone, everywhere. A G7 statement this week referenced key steps like technology transfer but stopped short of specific commitments. The world needs urgent manufacturing investments, regulatory cooperation, and intensive sharing of knowledge to radically expand vaccine supply.
President Biden should immediately launch a vaccine-manufacturing program designed to meet global need and end the pandemic.
The U.S government’s response to the global crisis has been helpful, yet piecemeal. Top officials are reportedly worried about the political consequences of the United States acting globally before the country achieves some unclear measure of security. Yet that moment, if it comes, may come many months from now, too late for the million people who will die in the interim, and likely too late to combat potential virus variants and economic devastation that threaten security everywhere, including the United States.
COVAX, the equitable vaccine access initiative, is not on track to vaccinate its target of one-in-five people in the global south this year. Global health initiatives, struggling with limited resources, are primarily aimed at managing the “acute phase” of the pandemic in the global south, vaccinating those at the highest risk. The WHO, for all its critical work over the past year, does not, on its own, have the political power to massively expand production or sit across the table from Moderna and Pfizer and establish clear expectations for sharing technology and ensuring global access.
But President Biden does.
The United States should help the world produce billions more vaccine doses within approximately one year. Here is how:
- Modest capital investments (about $2 billion) can retrofit vaccine-manufacturing facilities and install additional mRNA production lines. Doses can then be manufactured for less than $3 each. U.S. leadership is likely to inspire co-funding by other governments and international organizations. A total investment of less than $25 billion, including whole-of-government efforts to source raw materials and provide technical assistance, can support the rapid production of 8 billion doses of mRNA vaccine, enough for more than half the world’s population.
- The United States should support a massive expansion of manufacturing and establish hubs for vaccine production together with the WHO. Hubs would be located not only in North America and Europe but also in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, democratizing production and improving global health security, particularly if they are accountable to the public and equipped with adaptable technologies, such as mRNA platforms, believed critical to defeating the next pandemic.
- The United States should ensure that technology is shared openly so that scientists and manufacturers worldwide can support vaccine delivery and development. Where necessary, the U.S. government should use its power under existing domestic law to license technology, ensuring its availability and affordability now and for the future. Notably, taxpayers made substantial investments in COVID-19 vaccine research and development, and the U.S. government owns a key patent relied on by the major vaccine makers.
Sixty-six health and development organizations recently issued precisely the above call to President Biden. We await his response with great hope.
Making vaccines for the world would delay not a single vaccination at home. Indeed, new manufacturing capacity would improve U.S. resilience and pandemic preparedness, and the shortened global pandemic would save hundreds of billions in U.S. economic damage (and trillions more globally).
Such a commitment from President Biden could help reorder the world. The capacity that is missing today can be built with new investment, the raw materials in shortage today can be sourced and their expeditious delivery coordinated. The knowledge of how to make safe and effective COVID vaccines can be shared through technical assistance and, in coordination with the WHO, manufacturing brought to specification in time to shorten the pandemic by a year or more.
World leaders must work together urgently to translate the progress of the WTO waiver into the cooperation needed to produce billions more doses.
The United States cannot do this alone. But it will take the world much longer to end the pandemic without us.