WASHINGTON — President Biden, faced with surging Covid-19 crises in India and South America, is under intensifying pressure from the international community and his party’s left flank to commit to increasing the vaccine supply by loosening patent and intellectual property protections on coronavirus vaccines.
Pharmaceutical and biotech companies, also feeling pressure, sought on Monday to head off such a move, which could cut into future profits and jeopardize their business model. Pfizer and Moderna, two major vaccine makers, each announced steps to increase the supply of vaccine around the world.
The issue is coming to a head as the World Trade Organization’s General Council, one of its highest decision-making bodies, meets Wednesday and Thursday. India and South Africa are pressing for the body to waive an international intellectual property agreement that protects pharmaceutical trade secrets. The United States, Britain and the European Union so far have blocked the plan.
Inside the White House, health advisers to the president admit they are divided. Some say that Mr. Biden has a moral imperative to act, and that it is bad politics for the president to side with pharmaceutical executives. Others say spilling closely guarded but highly complex trade secrets into the open would do nothing to expand the global supply of vaccines.
promised the liberal health activist Ady Barkan, who has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or A.L.S., that he would “absolutely positively” commit to sharing technology and access to a coronavirus vaccine if the United States developed one first. Activists plan to remind Mr. Biden of that promise during a rally scheduled for Wednesday on the National Mall.
proposal by India and South Africa would exempt World Trade Organization member countries from enforcing some patents, trade secrets or pharmaceutical monopolies under the body’s agreement on trade-related intellectual property rights, known as TRIPS. The idea would be to allow drug companies in other countries to make or import cheap generic copies.
Proponents say the waiver would free innovators in other countries to pursue their own coronavirus vaccines, without fear of patent infringement lawsuits. They also note that the proposed waiver goes beyond vaccines, and would encompass intellectual property for therapeutics and medical supplies as well.
“Many people are saying, ‘Won’t they need the secret recipe?’ That’s not necessarily the case,” said Tahir Amin, a founder of the Initiative for Medicines, Access & Knowledge, a nonprofit dedicated to eliminating health inequities. “There are companies that feel they can go it alone, provided they don’t have to look over their shoulder and feel like they are going to take someone’s intellectual property.”
The pharmaceutical industry counters that rolling back intellectual property protections would not help ramp up vaccine production. It says that other issues are serving as barriers to getting shots into arms around the world, including access to raw materials and on-the-ground distribution challenges.
And just as important as having the rights to make a vaccine is having the technical know-how, which would have to be supplied by vaccine developers like Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna — a process known as technology transfer.