In a historic move, the US government has announced its support for waiving patent protections for COVID-19 vaccines, a measure aimed at boosting supplies so that people around the world can get the shots. “The extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures,” said US Trade Representative Katherine Tai.
The move comes on 5 May, the first of a two-day meeting of the general council of the World Trade Organization, based in Geneva. Until now, the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom and Japan have blocked efforts, brought by India and South Africa, to make it legal for manufactures to produce generic versions of COVID-19 vaccines.
Former US presidents from both parties have staunchly defended intellectual property rights, so the move has shocked people on both sides of the debate. “This marks a major shift in US policy in a pro-public health way,” says Matthew Kavanagh, a global health researcher at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
Kavanagh is part of the growing chorus of health policy and global health researchers advocating for patent waivers, as the gap between vaccination rates in rich and poor nations grows larger every day. Fewer than 1% of people in low-income countries have received COVID-19 vaccines. The researchers are quick to note, however, that a waiver on patents covering all aspects of COVID-19 vaccines would be just the first step in ramping up vaccine supply.