It’s Time for the U.S. to Step Up and Help Get the World Vaccinated

Why an intellectual property waiver isn’t the solution

James Surowiecki
Medium Coronavirus Blog
6 min readMay 7, 2021

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Photo: Edwin Hopper/Unsplash

When the Biden administration, in a surprise reversal, announced this week that it would support the waiver of intellectual property rights connected to Covid-19 vaccines, the announcement was hailed as a huge step in the fight to contain the global Covid pandemic, with the head of the World Trade Organization (WTO) calling it a “monumental moment in the fight against Covid-19.”

For many, it sparked hopes that vaccine manufacturers around the world would soon be able to begin making copies of the various Covid vaccines, expanding supply at a time when the vast majority of the world’s population remains unvaccinated and the virus is ravaging countries like India and Brazil.

Yet while Biden’s support for the intellectual property waiver was symbolically important, it’s unlikely to have any material impact on the course of the pandemic over the rest of the year and will be of no use to India as it tries to bring its current outbreak under control. What the world needs instead is a strategy that will vaccinate as many people as possible as quickly as possible. And the simplest, most obvious way to do that is for the world’s wealthiest countries to step up and foot the bill for vaccination on a global scale.

Why isn’t an intellectual property waiver the solution? In part, it’s because any such waiver has to be approved by all 164 members of the WTO, and many European countries remain opposed to the idea. (Yesterday, Germany — home to BioNTech, which is partnering with Pfizer to make one of the two mRNA vaccines — came out publicly against a waiver.) And even if they were eventually to change their minds the way the U.S. has, it’ll require lengthy negotiations to come up with a plan every WTO member will sign off on.

There’s also a bigger problem: Waiving intellectual property rights is not likely, on its own, to be enough to spur a boom in vaccine production. Consider that even under current global intellectual property rules, countries are able to issue what are called compulsory licenses in times of “national emergency.”

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James Surowiecki
Medium Coronavirus Blog

I’m the author of The Wisdom of Crowds. I’ve been a business columnist for Slate and The New Yorker and written for a wide range of other publications.