The US signaled support on Wednesday for waiving patent protections for coronavirus vaccines, saying doing so would bolster the international response to the pandemic.
US Trade Representative Katherine Tai said that while the Biden administration is strongly supportive of intellectual property protections, it supports their lifting for coronavirus vaccines "in service of ending this pandemic."
"We will actively participate in text-based negotiations at the World Trade Organization (WTO) needed to make that happen," she said in a statement. "Those negotiations will take time given the consensus-based nature of the institution and the complexity of the issues involved."
Shares of the four companies producing US-approved vaccines -- Moderna, Pfizer, BioNTech and Johnson and Johnson -- dropped sharply after news of the then-looming announcement emerged.
The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) trade group swiftly condemned the announcement, calling it an "empty promise" that will not remedy distribution problems.
"This decision does nothing to address the real challenges to getting more shots in arms, including last-mile distribution and limited availability of raw materials," association President Stephen Ubl said in a statement.
"Biopharmaceutical manufacturers are fully committed to providing global access to COVID-19 vaccines, and they are collaborating at a scale that was previously unimaginable, including more than 200 manufacturing and other partnerships to date. The biopharmaceutical industry shares the goal to get as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible, and we hope we can all re-focus on that shared objective,” he added.
WTO member states have reportedly been discussing in Geneva a potential temporary waiver sought by more than 100 developing nations. Details were not immediately available.
Tai said US support for the proposal is just one component of President Joe Biden's plan to combat the pandemic.
"The Administration's aim is to get as many safe and effective vaccines to as many people as fast as possible," she said.
"As our vaccine supply for the American people is secured, the administration will continue to ramp up its efforts—working with the private sector and all possible partners—to expand vaccine manufacturing and distribution. It will also work to increase the raw materials needed to produce those vaccines,” she added.