President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci said Wednesday that the U.S. has a “moral obligation” to share coronavirus vaccines and supplies worldwide and end the pandemic.
The federal government’s longtime infectious disease official told POLITICO that he backs waiving pharmaceutical giants’ vaccine patents so that other countries can produce generic versions of the shots — but doing so would not be a quick fix for the current crisis, including surging cases and deaths in India.
The prospect of abandoning vaccine patents to allow broad global production has pitted public health advocates against industry and some Biden administration officials who argue that the move could undercut vaccine makers and stress supply chains.
“I am certainly not against anything that can get doses of vaccine quickly into the arms of people in the developing world,” he told POLITICO. “I feel very strongly that we have a moral obligation as a rich nation, to really put our forces in our resources into helping those who would otherwise die because they happen to be in a country that they were born in.”
U.S. World Trade Organization Ambassador Katherine Tai on Wednesday said that the government backs the proposal but needs to hammer out details during an ongoing WTO meeting.
Progressive Democrats and global officials, including the World Trade Organization Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, insist that waiving vaccine patents is essential for making shots a public good and vaccinating the world. But that is the first step towards global production: It takes months, if not years, for manufacturers to set up production for specific vaccines.
“If you wait for that to happen, a lot of people are going to die,” Fauci said, arguing that patent waivers can come alongside immediate assistance from manufacturers and high-income countries. Biden pledged this week to donate 10 percent of U.S. supply to nations in need, but the administration has not laid out how it will prioritize populations for assistance.
“What I would like to see, but I don’t have control [over], is much sooner rather than later to actually get doses over there,” Fauci said.
Fauci’s comments come amid ongoing tensions inside the Biden administration on whether the U.S. should be sending doses to the rest of the world when a large portion of American adults still have not received the shot — though not for lack of supply.
The Biden administration has committed to sending essential Covid-19 assistance, such as raw materials and components for vaccines, therapeutics and personal protective equipment to India. It has also pledged to send 60 million AstraZeneca doses overseas, though the State Department is still working on a system for evaluating multiple different bids from countries across the globe. President Biden recently told reporters he intends to send at least some of the vaccine to India.
Still, the U.S. trails well behind competing nations like China and Russia in the vaccine diplomacy race, inviting criticism from global health groups that contend the administration has not moved fast enough to help combat the pandemic overseas.
And despite Biden’s vow earlier this week to make the U.S. an “arsenal for fighting Covid-19” worldwide, his administration has yet to settle on how quickly to distribute doses and which countries to prioritize.
Fauci alluded to that debate during the interview, chalking it up to differences among officials about how large the U.S. stockpile must be before the U.S. can give away portions without endangering the response at home. The administration will begin sending more doses to countries in need when the U.S. “interrupts the train of transmission,” he said.
Still, he stressed the need for the U.S. to assert itself in the coming months as a major contributor to the global Covid effort.
“Having been through a horrible situation, with close to 600,000 people in this country having died, we want to feel really comfortable that we have absolutely interrupted the chain of transmission before we do anything else,” Fauci said. “You can ramp up production, by investing resources into the companies that are already doing it. And you can do it in a way to say ramp it up, but it’s going to be for the developing world in addition to us.”