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Biden decision on COVID vaccine patent waivers is more about global leadership than IP

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Back in October 2020 – as the world recorded its first million COVID-19 deaths – South Africa and India presented a proposal at the World Trade Organization for “a waiver from the implementation, application and enforcement” of global intellectual property rights “in relation to prevention, containment or treatment of COVID-19.” Along with other western countries, the Trump administration strenuously opposed the idea. But on Wednesday the Biden administration said it is prepared to go along with such a waiver, at least for coronavirus vaccines. 

What happened?

At first the South Africa-India proposal seemed like the usual political dancing that goes on in Geneva’s different multilateral venues – idealistic, ideological and disconnected from reality. By contrast, in the first months of the pandemic and without much transparency or concern for WTO rules, 80 countries in the WTO individually imposed controls on exports of medicines, ventilators, PPE, disinfectants, foodstuffs, and, yes, toilet paper. 

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