U.S. reversal on vaccine patents offers countries in crisis hope

The Biden administration’s decision to support waiving intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines was hailed by activists and health officials Thursday as a decisive move that could upend the cozy relationship between rich countries and pharmaceutical giants and mark a crucial step toward addressing global vaccine inequality.

However, the move drew strong criticism from leading drugmakers and some experts, who are skeptical about its impact on the world’s efforts to fight back against the coronavirus.

And the dramatic shift from Washington also raised questions about what comes next, with focus turning to whether others will follow the United States’ lead.

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For months, the U.S. has been part of a group of rich countries that have resisted proposals by India and South Africa to relax some World Trade Organization protections related to the coronavirus vaccines.

On Wednesday, the Biden administration effectively crossed this divide between the vaccine haves and the have-nots, reversing the course set by former President Donald Trump.

The historic move suggests that pharmaceutical giants may have to share their vaccine know-how and allow third-party international manufacturers to start pumping out shots for use in poorer countries.

“These extraordinary times and circumstances call for extraordinary measures,” said U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai.

The debate has been thrown into sharp relief by the crisis in India, where mass deaths, failing oxygen supplies, and overwhelmed hospitals and crematoriums are compounded by the fact that only 2 percent of the people have been vaccinated, compared with 30 percent in the U.S.

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