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U.S. Mulls Vaccine IP Waiver as WTO Meets

The White House has yet to lay out its position on the waiver. Anthony Fauci says he’s “agnostic.”

By Colm Quinn, the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
An employee holds COVID-19 vaccines.
An employee holds a container with bottles of COVID-19 vaccines at Butantan biomedical production center in São Paulo, Brazil, on April 23. Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: WTO meets as U.S. mulls supporting a COVID-19 vaccine waiver, Mexico train crash kills at least 24 people, and Egypt and Turkey begin normalization talks in Cairo. 

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Vaccine Waiver to Lead WTO Agenda

The World Trade Organization’s (WTO) General Council, the group’s highest decision-making body, gathers today for a two-day meeting. A proposal to waive intellectual property protections on COVID-19 vaccines is set to top the agenda.

The waiver proposal, initially brought forward by India and South Africa in October 2020 and now supported by roughly 100 other countries, has languished for months as rich countries (all of whom also happen to be vaccine-rich) have blocked its discussion at the WTO’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) council.

It also comes at a time of wildly unequal vaccine distribution. As World Health Organization (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus recently pointed out, 1 in 4 people in high-income countries have received a dose; in low-income countries, the proportion is closer to 1 in 500 people.

The election of Joe Biden as U.S. president has revived the proposal’s chances. On the campaign trail, Biden said sharing vaccine technology without regard to patent rules was “the only humane thing in the world to do.”

U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai has been in discussions over the past month with pharmaceutical CEOs and public health advocates to craft a way forward. However, her office, along with the rest of the White House, has remained tight-lipped regarding their final decision amid a fierce internal debate.

Opponents of the waiver say it won’t do enough, that intellectual property concerns are not currently the main obstacle to vaccine production, and that a waiver would discourage pharmaceutical companies from innovating in the future. They point to more practical concerns, like shortages in raw materials and a lack of manufacturing capacity, as the more pressing issues.

Supporters of the waiver say it would free up additional capacity among producers who are currently wary of legal troubles as well as force the kinds of technology transfers that voluntary arrangements, like the WHO’s COVID-19 Technology Access Pool, have failed to do.

Whose patents? The waiver’s proponents also say pharmaceutical companies should not get to decide on vaccine technology and production made possible by massive public investment: The Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed pumped $18 billion into vaccine production; the CEO of BioNTech, the company that developed the technology behind Pfizer’s vaccine, has credited EU research and development funding for its success; and the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. medical research agency, did much of the heavy-lifting on the therapeutic effects of mRNA, the basis for many of today’s COVID-19 vaccines.

The popular move. For Biden, supporting the Indian-South African proposal, or a version of it, would also be the popular move: A recent Data for Progress poll found that 60 percent of Americans supported the waiver.

The doctors diagnosis. Adding more uncertainty to the ultimate White House position, Anthony Fauci, Biden’s chief medical advisor, said he is “agnostic” on the issue during an interview with Mehdi Hasan on MSNBC, arguing that even with a waiver, mass vaccination in poor countries could be delayed until 2022 or 2023.

“I’m telling him get people vaccinated as quickly as you possibly can. If that means getting billions of doses from companies and getting it to the people in the low- or middle-income countries at a very, very low price that they can afford, do it, and do it now,” Fauci said. “Because if you want to start transferring technology, you’re going to get it to them a year and a half from now. … My only concern is I care about people getting vaccinated. However you do that, go for it, and do it now.”


What We’re Following Today

Mexico’s train crash. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has vowed to punish those responsible for an overpass collapse that caused a train crash, killing at least 24 people in Mexico City on Tuesday. The elevated train line was built in 2012 and has long been at the center of allegations of corruption and cut corners during its construction. The incident also puts pressure on Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard, the former Mexico City mayor who presided over much of the rail project, as well as current Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo. Both city leaders are considered strong candidates to succeed López Obrador when he leaves office in 2024.

Israel’s new government. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin begins consultations today to decide who will get the next shot at forming a government after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to cobble together a governing coalition on his first attempt. Rivlin, who has three days to make his decision, will likely choose Yair Lapid of the centrist Yesh Atid party. Lapid would face an uphill task in forming a coalition as he needs to rely on the support of far-right Likud defectors as well as Arab Israeli parties.

Turkey and Egypt on the mend. Representatives from Turkey and Egypt meet in Cairo today for “exploratory” discussions “on the necessary steps that may lead towards the normalisation of relations,” according to a joint statement. Relations between the two countries have frayed due to maritime border disputes, Libya’s civil war, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s opposition to the 2013 coup that brought Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to power. There were some signs of rapprochement in March when the Turkish government directed Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated media channels in the country to refrain from criticizing the Egyptian president.

Colombia’s week of protests. Colombian unions and civil society groups have called for mass marches and a national strike today, one week after protests began over a now-canceled tax reform proposal. The protests have now evolved to include demands for a basic income guarantee, the abolition of riot police, and withdrawal of a health reform proposal. On Tuesday, Colombian President Iván Duque Márquez said he will “create a space to listen to citizens and construct solutions,” echoing calls for national dialogue he made in 2019 after widespread anti-government protests.


Keep an Eye On

The Biden-Putin summit. Biden is likely to hold his first bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in June. “That is my hope and expectation. Were working on it,” Biden told reporters on Tuesday. The meeting could take place on either side of international gatherings scheduled in June: The G-7 leaders summit in London on June 11 to 13 is followed by NATO and EU-U.S. summits on June 14.

Brexit problems. France has threatened “retaliatory measures’’—including cutting power to Jersey, the largest of the Channel Islands—as tensions rise over fishing rights between Britain and France. Since the post-Brexit trade deal, French fishermen have been angered by delays in newly required licenses that prevent them from accessing British waters—an area they say is necessary for their livelihoods.

Although Jersey, a dependency of Britain, recently allowed 41 French ships to operate near the island, the French government has said this authorization came with restrictions that were not discussed in advance. “This is absolutely unacceptable,” said Annick Girardin, the French maritime minister. “If we accept this for Jersey, it would imperil our access everywhere.”

Germany’s far right. Germany recorded a 20 percent increase in politically motivated violent crimes in 2020, with crimes committed by far-right supports reaching a record high. While presenting the data on Tuesday, German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said far-right sympathizers were responsible for more than half of politically motivated crimes recorded last year. “These numbers are very alarming mainly because a trend has been established over the last few years,” Seehofer said. “During the pandemic, we observed a further polarization of the political discussion.”


Odds and Ends

A Chinese tour operator is under scrutiny after the operator was accused of misleading a group of older customers. The alleged deception began when the tourists signed up for a trip on the promise of visiting a “scenic spot” in Chongqing with lunch provided. Instead, the tour operator took them to a cemetery and gave them a sales pitch on grave sites. Following a customer complaint, Chongqing’s culture and tourism development committee found the company was not licensed to organize tours and promised to investigate further.

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn