US President Joe Biden’s spokesperson Jen Psaki has refused to say if the US will allow the export of Covid-19 vaccine raw materials to India, a shortage that could impact global supply or set a timeline for dealing with the requests for relaxing the vaccine patent rights.
At her briefing in Washington on Monday, she sidestepped a question about reports that at a virtual meeting Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar the US had indicated that it was considering the request for lifting the raw materials ban.
She instead spoke about the reaction of US Trade Representative Katherine Tai to the request from India and South Africa for waiving the intellectual property rights for the vaccine, sounding optimistic.
“We are, of course, working with WTO members on a global response to Covid. That includes a number of components, whether it’s $4 billion committed to COVAX (the international consortium for vaccine distribution), or discussions about how we can aid and assist countries that need help the most.
“Our focus is on determining the most effective steps that will help get the pandemic under control. We don’t have anything further in terms of next steps or a timeline, but we are considering a range of options,” Psaki added.
After his virtual meeting with Blinken, Jaishankar tweeted that they “also discussed issues pertaining to our health cooperation”, which was seen as a reference to the vaccine issue.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price’s readout of their conversation said more specifically that they had discussed cooperation regarding Covid-19.
Despite the criticism of his predecessor Donald Trump’s “America First” policies, Biden has been following in his footsteps when it came to vaccines.
The Defence Production Act that has been invoked to boost vaccine production in the US is reported to curtail export of raw materials needed elsewhere.
Last week, Serum Institute of India (SII) CEO Adar Poonawala appealed to Biden to allow the exports of vaccine raw materials.
“If we are to truly unite in beating this virus, on behalf of the vaccine industry outside the US, I humbly request you to lift the embargo of raw material exports out of the US so that vaccine production can ramp up,” he said in a tweeted.
Facing international criticism for his “vaccine nationalism”, Biden has made India the manufacturing hub for the jabs under the aegis of the Quad for distribution in the Indo-Pacific region.
Last month’s Quad summit of Biden and Prime Ministers Narendra Modi of India, Yoshihide Suga of Japan and Scott Morrison of Australia agreed to have 1 billion vaccine doses manufactured by India with Japanese and US financial backing and distributed using Australian logistics.
SII, which manufactures the Oxford University-developed Covishield, is the world’s main supplier of the vaccine and disruption of its manufacturing due to shortage of raw materials affects the global supply,
Psaki said that at last week’s WTO meeting that Tai “highlighted a couple of points, I should say, that are very representative of our view. The significant one being ‘the significant inequities we are seeing in access to vaccines between developed and developing countries are completely unacceptable. Extraordinary times require extraordinary leadership, communication, and creativity'”.
At the WTO meeting in which India’s Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal and South Africa’s Trade Minister Ebrahim Patel participated, Tai acknowledged that “the market once again has failed in meeting the health needs of developing countries”.
“We have to consider what modifications and reforms to our trade rules might be necessary to reflect what we have learned,” she added.
The relaxation of intellectual property rights is opposed by the powerful trade union, International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE) of the American Federation of Labour-Congress of Industrial Organisations (AFL-CIO).
IFTPTE President Paul Shearon wrote to Tai’s staff that the US should manufacture vaccines domestically to create jobs and preserve its lead in the technology and then end them abroad to meet the global demands.
“We have become dependent on India and China for active pharmaceutical ingredients,” he said.
Because of the labour opposition, Tai held a meeting with representatives of 18 trade unions on the the proposed waiver of the intellectual property rights.
In contrast to the trade unions, the leftist Senator Bernie Sanders organised a group of ten senators to urge Biden to “prioritise people over pharmaceutical company profits” and support the temporary waiver of the patent rights for the vaccine.
(Arul Louis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter at @arulouis)