The Biden-Harris Administration has voiced support for waiving intellectual property protections for COVID vaccines, in the hope of ramping up access in low-income countries hit by the virus, marking a u-turn on the US' initial opposition to the move.

According to Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontierès (MSF), which has applauded the move, the decision by the US government is “an important step towards global support for a World Trade Organization (WTO) waiver on IP”.

“This could provide countries with new options to address the limitations of existing WTO rules and remove legal uncertainties and barriers that may impede production and supply of COVID-19 medical products in advance”.

Highlighting the need for action on access, MSF noted that many of the low-income countries in which it operates have received just 0.3% of global COVID-19 vaccine supply “while the US has secured enough doses to protect its entire population and still have more than half a billion surplus vaccines left over”.

Shortages of diagnostics and live-saving treatments and other lifesaving medical tools are putting more pressure on such as India and Brazil, “where the surging of cases has pushed health systems to the brink of collapse,” the group warns.

“This monumental decision will help address the historic and extraordinary global health challenges we’re facing and increase equitable access to lifesaving COVID-19 vaccines worldwide by helping to end this crisis for everyone. The longer it takes to vaccinate everyone in the world, the greater the risk to us all as new variants have more opportunity to take hold,” said Avril Benoît, executive director of MSF-USA.

“Countries that continue to oppose the WTO waiver, such as European Union countries, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Canada, Australia, Norway, Japan, and Brazil must now take action, too, and decide to put people’s health before pharmaceutical profits and waive IP on all COVID-19 medical tools, including vaccines.”

However, the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA) has expressed disappointment with the US administration's decision to support a patent waiver for COVID-19 vaccines.

“We are fully aligned with the goal to ensure COVID-19 vaccines are quickly and equitably shared around the world. But, as we have consistently stated, a waiver is the simple but the wrong answer to what is a complex problem.

"Waiving patents of COVID-19 vaccines will not increase production nor provide practical solutions needed to battle this global health crisis. On the contrary, it is likely to lead to disruption; while distracting from addressing the real challenges in scaling up production and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines globally: namely elimination of trade barriers, addressing bottlenecks in supply chains and scarcity of raw materials and ingredients in the supply chain, and a willingness by rich countries to start sharing doses with poor countries.

“The only way to ensure quick scaling up of and equitable vaccine access to all those in need remains pragmatic and constructive dialogue with the private sector.”