Restoring global public health: Our thank you letter to USTR Ambassador Katherine Tai

Image: Scientist examines COVID-19 vaccine agar plate by National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (CC-BY 2.0)

Two months ago, the United States Trade Representative (USTR), Ambassador Katherine Tai, announced the US Government’s support for a waiver of specific intellectual property (IP) protections for COVID-19 vaccines. The Wikimedia Foundation would like to thank Ambassador Tai for her work on this crucial policy issue.

The US Government’s statement supporting a partial waiver of IP protection for COVID-19 vaccines has created an opportunity for reaching agreement on the World Trade Organization (WTO) discussion initiated by India and South Africa to waive IP rights for the duration of the pandemic. Such an IP waiver is a necessary first step to allow developing countries, in particular, to produce vaccines, diagnostic tools, or therapies in time.

What is the significance of the waiver? The Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), in force since 1995, obliges WTO member states to comply with specific standards of intellectual property protection. These standards have been and continue to be barriers to research, creation, and supply of health products and treatments to combat COVID-19. By waiving such obstacles and thereby allowing for lower cost and more volume supply of COVID-19 vaccines, developing states can more readily promote and protect the health of their citizens.

A year and a half into the pandemic, no meaningful global policy actions have been taken to ensure widespread access to vaccines, diagnostic tools, treatments, and knowledge for the prevention, containment, and treatment of COVID-19. Instead, there is a profound inequity in access to critical knowledge and technologies needed to address the pandemic. Global collaboration and cooperation are required to address intellectual property barriers and facilitate technology transfer.

Wikimedia Foundation, alongside other US public interest organizations, welcomes the support announced by USTR Ambassador Tai for the TRIPS waiver and urges the US government to play a significant role in the negotiations. While we have not before taken a stance on access to medicines, as an organization that seeks to “protect the values and policies that allow free knowledge to thrive,” we look forward to an agreement that broadly covers those uses necessary for the prevention and treatment of COVID-19. We know that there is still opposition to this waiver from developed countries, but we hope that a concrete outcome will be reached as soon as possible to restore global public health.

Below, we share the thank you letter we recently sent to Ambassador Tai.

Amalia Toledo, Tech, Law & Policy Fellow, Wikimedia Foundation

The Honorable Katherine Tai

Office of the United States Trade Representative

July 6th, 2021

Dear Ambassador Tai,

We write to express the Wikimedia Foundation’s deep thanks and appreciation for your support of the TRIPS waiver to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

The administration’s historic leadership on this issue has the potential to make a huge impact in ending the current health and economic crises. We look forward to working with your office and others to ensure that the United States’ support for a TRIPS waiver leads to a speedy and robust final waiver agreement that can start getting shots into people’s arms and save lives as quickly as possible.

We very much celebrate the administration’s recognition that an effective TRIPS waiver needs to cover all forms of intellectual property standing in the way of increased production, not just a patent waiver. We also want to ensure that a waiver covers access to copyrighted works so that, for example, researchers anywhere in the world can use the most advanced research and methodologies to help find and develop treatments for COVID-19. Inequality in the ability to use knowledge products represents a major obstacle to scientific progress and thus to containing the pandemic and caring for its victims.

Likewise, while we are excited by the promise that the TRIPS waiver is moving into text-based negotiations, we are troubled by reports that World Trade Organization Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has set a target date of December 4th for completing those talks. The United States should be pushing hard for a final TRIPS waiver agreement to be reached within days or weeks, not months or years. All actors should be moving as expeditiously as possible, with full recognition that every day of delay means that fewer vaccines, diagnostic tools, treatments and knowledge for the prevention, containment and treatment of COVID-19 are available everywhere in the world to use and build upon, even as the crisis continues throughout the world.

The severity of the health and economic crises that the world still faces from the COVID pandemic cannot be overstated. Our strong hope is that countries will work to reach a final agreement by the end of July.

Again, we are very grateful for your leadership and the President’s leadership in support of a TRIPS waiver, and we intend to do all we can to translate that into a quick and robust final agreement that saves as many lives as possible. Please let us know how we can be of assistance.


The Wikimedia Foundation

cc: White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain



-- - Stories by Wikimedia's Public Policy Team and friends and allies.

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