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U.S. to start talks with WTO over lifting COVID-19 vaccine patents

A medical worker handles vials of COVID-19 vaccine at the town hall of the 5th district in Paris  on January 18. File Photo by David Silpa/UPI
A medical worker handles vials of COVID-19 vaccine at the town hall of the 5th district in Paris  on January 18. File Photo by David Silpa/UPI | License Photo

May 3 (UPI) -- The Biden administration said it will begin talks this week with the World Trade Organization about lifting intellectual property rights for coronavirus vaccines as activists and foreign leaders urge the move for the benefit of poorer nations.

White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain told CBS's Face the Nation in an interview Sunday that Katherine Tai, the United States' top trade negotiator, will head to the WTO to open talks on "how we can get this vaccine more widely distributed, more widely licensed, more widely shared."

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The announcement was made as pressure from activists, progressive politicians and foreign leaders mounts on the White House to support waiving pharmaceutical patents on vaccine production to allow poorer countries to make their own versions of the shot.

Early last week, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi told President Joe Biden in a phone call about a motion it brought before the WTO along with South Africa to waive certain trade provisions concerning vaccines, according to a readout of the call from Modi's office.

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The motion calls for the waiver to be in place "until widespread vaccination is in place globally, and the majority of the world's population has developed immunity."

The call between the two heads of state was made as India battles another surge in cases. In the last two days, Indian health officials have reported some 800,000 infections and more than 7,000 deaths.

In mid-April, more than 170 heads of states and Nobel laureates, including Kim Campbell, the former prime minister of Canada, and former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, called on Biden to support the motion.

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"A WTO waiver is a vital and necessary step to bringing an end to this pandemic," the leaders said in a letter sent to the president by The People's Vaccine movement. "With your leadership, we can ensure COVID-19 vaccine technology is shared with the world."

At the current rate of immunization in poorer nations, many will be waiting until at least 2024 to get the shot, they said.

In March, World Health Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus also called for patents to be waived to put the world "on a war footing."

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"I don't believe that globally we're exercising our full manufacturing muscle at present," he said. "Let's not be held back by politics, business as usual or those that say we can't."

Klain said Sunday that intellectual property rights are only part of the problem with manufacturing being more to blame for vaccine supply issues.

India has a domestic vaccine called Covishield and production there has slowed due to a lack of raw materials, he said, adding the United States has sent enough to make some 20 million doses as the country battles another surge in cases.

"Manufacturing is the biggest problem," he said. "We have a factory here in the U.S. that has the full intellectual property rights to make the vaccine. They aren't making doses because the factory has problems."

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January 31, 2020
National Institutes of Health official Dr. Anthony Fauci (C) speaks about the coronavirus during a press briefing at the White House in Washington, D.C. Health and Human Services Secretary Alexander Azar (L) announced that the United States is declaring the virus a public health emergency and issued a federal quarantine order of 14 days for 195 Americans. Photo by Leigh Vogel/UPI | License Photo

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