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U.S. Backs Vaccine Waiver

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: The United States backs a COVID-19 vaccine patent waiver, the United Kingdom holds regional elections, and China ends its economic dialogue with Australia.

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U.S. Support for Waiver Angers Big Pharma

The Biden administration on Thursday announced its support for waiving intellectual property protections on COVID-19 vaccines to boost production in a move celebrated by health advocates and scorned by the pharmaceutical industry.

U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai laid out the new U.S. position in a statement. “This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures,” the statement read.

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the industry’s lobbying arm (and the third-highest lobbying spender in Washington in 2020), issued a scathing rebuke of the decision. The group’s CEO, Stephen J. Ubl, decried the move as an “empty promise,” saying it “does nothing to address the real challenges to getting more shots in arms, including last-mile distribution and limited availability of raw materials.”

The news comes a day after vaccine producer Pfizer, one of the few major companies selling its COVID-19 vaccines on a for-profit basis, announced $3.5 billion in revenue generated by vaccine sales in the first three months of this year, netting an estimated $900 million in profit. Stocks in vaccine producers briefly dropped following Tai’s announcement, before mostly recovering by the end of trading.

For supporters, the decision has been greeted with a mix of celebration and trepidation. World Health Organization Chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus hailed the decision as “monumental” while other groups pointed to the statement’s limited scope. The original proposal, put forward by India and South Africa last October, called for patent waivers on other medical tools, including personal protective equipment, therapeutic treatments, and testing kits. “It is crucial that this waiver not just apply to preventative vaccines,” Avril Benoît, executive director of Doctors Without Borders USA, said in an emailed statement.

Not so fast. More diplomatic hurdles must be surmounted before a vaccine waiver can go into effect internationally. The World Trade Organization (WTO) operates on a consensus basis, and Australia, Brazil, Canada, the European Union, Japan, Norway, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom have not yet supported the lifting of intellectual property protections. One holdout, New Zealand announced it was backing the waiver following the U.S. decision.

There’s also the question of timing. Even if the opposing countries come on board, the text of the waiver is expected to be subjected to heavy scrutiny, and negotiations could take weeks if not longer. Clete Willems, a former U.S. representative at the WTO in Geneva, told Reuters a completed agreement was more likely to be in place by the end of November.

The herd race. The waiver could end up being merely a symbolic move if projected doses are produced on time and rich countries willingly share their stockpiles. Vaccine makers project 12 billion doses will become available by the end of 2021, and roughly 11 billion doses would vaccinate 70 percent of the world’s population—enough to pass estimated thresholds of herd immunity.

But rich countries could continue to hoard doses, new variants could appear that require new vaccines, booster shots could be necessary later this year, and a desire to vaccinate children could prompt governments already overstocked with doses to think twice about sharing with other countries—a scenario that would make the waiver even more essential, according to its supporters.

A different warp speed? Although its unlikely to make a short-term dent in vaccine access, an intellectual property waiver could help scale up production capacity to guard against longer-term uncertainty.

Nicholas Lusiani, a senior advisor at Oxfam America, told Foreign Policy the U.S. decision has hastened an inevitable process. “This was going to happen anyway,” Lusiani said. “All vaccines over time disseminate and are exposed to competition or are made at lower prices all over the world. The question is just how long that takes and how many people die, especially during a pandemic, and what the Biden administration did today was drastically reduce that time between approval and actual access for people at low cost.”

What We’re Following Today

Britain’s regional elections. Today, voters across the United Kingdom will cast ballots in regional elections with international implications. Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party has promised a vote on independence if her party wins an outright majority in the Scottish Parliament, although polls indicate she may fall short. Jamie Maxwell, writing in Foreign Policy, outlines the stakes for Sturgeon going into today’s vote and the challenges she faces in organizing Scotland’s independence movement.

The English town of Hartlepool also holds a parliamentary by-election seen as a test of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s popularity. The Labour Party has held the seat for almost 60 years, although a recent poll shows Johnson’s Conservative Party candidate 17 points clear of her Labour rival.

Blinken in Kyiv. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visits Ukraine today, where he is expected to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in a sign of U.S. support following a recent heightening of tensions with Russia. Blinken is fresh off a two-day trip to London, where he and other G-7 foreign ministers expressed deep concern for the continuing “negative pattern of Russia’s irresponsible and destabilizing behavior.” On April 22, Russia announced its withdrawal of tens of thousands of troops stationed near the Ukrainian border and described the buildup as a military exercise.

India’s COVID-19 crisis. India has again broken the record for the highest daily number of new cases, as 412,262 new infections were reported in the past 24 hours. The Indian government’s previous forecast suggested cases would peak by Wednesday. The ever-increasing caseload comes as hospitals continue to face oxygen shortages. Health Minister Harsh Vardhan has said oxygen supply in the country is not lacking, but transporting it to where it’s needed remains a problem.

Keep an Eye On

China-Australia ties. China has “indefinitely” suspended its participation in the China-Australia Strategic Economic Dialogue in the latest sign of deteriorating ties between the two countries. Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said the move was a “necessary and legitimate” response to Australia “abusing” unnamed national security concerns. In April, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne canceled an agreement between China and the state of Victoria to fund what would be Australia’s first Belt and Road Initiative projects.

Fighting over fish. The United Kingdom has sent two navy ships to patrol the waters around the island of Jersey amid a Brexit-related dispute with French vessels over fishing rights. Under the island’s new rules, French boats must prove a history of fishing in Jersey’s waters, and French fishermen claim more requirements have been added without prior notice. France has threatened to cut power to the island in retaliation while Stéphanie Yon-Courtin, a member of the European Parliament’s fisheries committee, called for de-escalation.

Odds and Ends

Officials in the Japanese town of Noto have become the subject of ridicule (and some admiration) for spending nearly $228,000 in coronavirus emergency funds on a giant squid statue. Local media quoted one government official, who said the 40-foot-long statue is part of a “long-term strategy” to boost tourism and awareness of the fishing industry of the town, where squid is considered a delicacy. The squid could end up becoming a boon to Noto, but it will be some time before its popularity can be tested: International visitors are still banned from entering the country as Japan continues to battle its coronavirus epidemic.