The U.S. Confronts a Virus ‘That Doesn’t Understand Borders’

As Covid cases rage overseas and vaccine drives lag, Biden faces a complex calculus.


By Giovanni Russonello

When the Biden administration announced last week that it would support waiving patent protections for Covid-19 vaccines in an effort to fight the coronavirus’s spread around the world, global health advocates hailed the move as a rare challenge to pharmaceutical interests — one that could potentially save a huge number of lives.

But so far, President Biden’s announcement has remained simply that: a statement.

Leaders of some wealthy European nations have pushed back, opposing the relaxation of patents and setting up a showdown among the member nations in the World Trade Organization. Besides, global health experts are saying that even if patents were suspended, vast amounts of international aid would still be needed to effectively disperse the vaccine.

Given the leadership role that Mr. Biden has said he is committed to reasserting on the world stage, the administration now confronts a daunting reality: that no person anywhere is safe until the virus is controlled everywhere. And with vaccine access heavily concentrated in the richest countries, a global solution still appears far off.

“We need to have an end-to-end solution for getting these vaccines to a huge chunk of the global population,” Saad Omer, the director of the Yale Institute for Global Health, said in an interview.

The stakes are high, and not just for the billions of people around the globe who remain unvaccinated. Epidemiologists agree that until the virus is contained everywhere, dangerous variants will continue to develop in infected areas. This will threaten people in all nations, including those that have been widely vaccinated.

“There is a humanitarian reason to help the world, but also a self-interest reason as well, especially when we know there are variants that will develop,” Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University, said in an interview. “This is a virus that doesn’t understand borders.”

With this in mind, Katherine Tai, the U.S. trade representative, announced on Wednesday that Mr. Biden would support suspending patent protections for virus vaccines, allowing those made by pharmaceutical companies in the United States and elsewhere to be replicated by other manufacturers across the globe.

“This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures,” Ms. Tai said in a statement. “The administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections but, in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for Covid-19 vaccines.”

Some European leaders, including President Emmanuel Macron of France and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, pushed back, saying that American pharmaceutical companies should be compelled to export vaccines around the world in large numbers, but should not be forced to temporarily give up their patents — a nod to an argument from manufacturers that loosening the patents would threaten their profits and de-incentivize research in the future.

Irwin Redlener, the director of the Pandemic Resource and Response Initiative at the Columbia University Earth Institute, said that the argument rang hollow, considering that so much public money was invested last year in researching and developing the Covid-19 vaccines. He also pointed to the fact that the vaccines have already brought in hundreds of millions of dollars in profits for U.S. companies.

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