US President Joe Biden's administration has announced its support for a global waiver on patent protections for Covid-19 vaccines, and will negotiate the terms at the World Trade Organization (WTO).
While intellectual property rights for businesses are important, the United States "supports the waiver of those protections for Covid-19 vaccines," its Trade Representative Katherine Tai said in a statement.
"This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures," she added.
President Biden had been under intense pressure from world leaders to agree to waive protections for vaccine manufacturers in order to ramp up production and get the jabs out to more countries as rich nations have swept up the majority of the doses.
Ms Tai said the US will participate in the negotiations within the WTO but cautioned that discussions "will take time given the consensus-based nature of the institution and the complexity of the issues involved."
The global trade body has for months been facing calls led by India and South Africa to temporarily remove the intellectual property protections on Covid-19 vaccines, in a move proponents say would help boost production in developing countries that so far have received far fewer jabs.
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However that notion has until now met fierce opposition from pharmaceutical giants and their host countries, which insist the patents are not the main roadblocks to scaling up production, and warn the move could hamper innovation.
WTO chief Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has been pressing for an international agreement to provide at least a temporary patent waiver.
"We need to have a sense of urgency on how we approach this issue of response to Covid-19 because the world is watching," she said earlier, describing equitable access to the tools to fight the pandemic as the "moral and economic issue of our time."
This is a monumental moment in the fight against #COVID19. The commitment by @POTUS Joe Biden & @USTradeRep @AmbassadorTai to support the waiver of IP protections on vaccines is a powerful example of ???? leadership to address global health challenges. pic.twitter.com/3iBt3jfdEr— Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (@DrTedros) May 5, 2021
The Director-General of the World Health Organization described the move by the Biden administration as a "historic decision".
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus wrote on Twitter that the move was a step towards vaccine equity, "prioritizing the well-being of all people everywhere at a critical time".
"Now let's all move together swiftly, in solidarity, building on the ingenuity and commitment of scientists who produced life-saving Covid-19 vaccines," he added.
Mr Tedros clashed repeatedly with former US president Donald Trump, who began withdrawing his country from the WHO before President Biden immediately rescinded the move upon taking office in January.
"This decision marks a moment of immense moral significance in international policy, putting global need ahead of any narrow considerations.— President of Ireland (@PresidentIRL) May 5, 2021
It has the potential to be exemplary, building hope in so many areas for a real new beginning in our mutual interdependence." - MDH https://t.co/VS6getVwWm
President Michael D Higgins welcomed the development, saying the patent waiver "marks a moment of immense moral significance".
In a post on Twitter, he said: "This decision marks a moment of immense moral significance in international policy, putting global need ahead of any narrow considerations.
"It has the potential to be exemplary, building hope in so many areas for a real new beginning in our mutual interdependence."
However, the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA) described the US move as "the wrong answer" to a complex problem and called for more technology transfer agreements.
The Geneva-based IFPMA, which represents research-based pharmaceutical companies, said in a statement: "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."
The real challenges are trade barriers, bottlenecks in supply chains, scarcity of raw materials, and "willingness by rich countries to start sharing doses with poor countries," it added.