Skip to main content

A dramatic policy reversal by the United States on vaccine patent protection has left a G7 meeting in disarray, with Canada and other countries conspicuously declining to issue support for the new U.S. position.

The Biden administration announced on Wednesday that it will now support a proposal from developing countries to allow a temporary waiver on COVID-19 vaccine patents. The move is aimed at allowing new suppliers to begin manufacturing the vaccines, reducing the increasingly desperate global shortage of the doses.

“This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures,” U.S. Trade Representative Katherine 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.”

The new stance is a major shift for the United States, which had previously refused to support a patent waiver. While the pharmaceutical industry has vocally opposed a waiver, the move was strongly welcomed by health activist groups, which have been lobbying for a waiver and holding rallies in favour of it. The waiver had earlier been supported by U.S. politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

The Canadian government, however, declined to say whether it would support the new U.S. position. Instead it issued a vague statement, pledging to seek solutions.

“We look forward to working with the U.S. on finding solutions to ensure a just and speedy global recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic,” Canadian trade minister Mary Ng said in a statement on Wednesday in response to the U.S. announcement.

“We continue to work with international partners and are actively supporting the WTO’s efforts to accelerate global vaccine production and distribution,” she said.

Asked specifically whether Canada supported the U.S. policy reversal, Ms. Ng’s press secretary Youmy Han repeated the minister’s comments. “We look forward to keep working with the U.S. and international partners in finding consensus-based solutions on this issue,” she told The Globe and Mail in an email.

The World Trade Organization, which has been considering the proposed patent waiver for the past seven months, operates on consensus and cannot approve a new policy if key countries are opposing it.

The patent waiver proposal was first put forward by South Africa and India last October, and the plan was later supported by more than 100 countries, largely in the developing world.

The G7 meeting in London, which ended just a few hours before the U.S. announcement, did not make any statement on the vaccine patent issue, suggesting Washington does not yet have the support of some of its largest allies. An intellectual property waiver would require consensus at the 164-member World Trade Organization.

In their final communiqué, the G7 foreign ministers said they had agreed to push for the accelerated production of affordable vaccines – but they avoided calling on big pharmaceutical companies to waive their intellectual property rights. Instead, the ministers said they would work with the industry to encourage “voluntary licensing and tech transfer agreements on mutually agreed terms.”

Nor did the G7 make any new commitments regarding vaccine sharing.

The World Health Organization’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said the new U.S. support for the waiver proposal is “a monumental moment” in the fight against the pandemic. He called it a “historic decision for vaccine equity and prioritizing the well-being of all people everywhere at a critical time.”

In supporting the waiver of intellectual-property protections, the United States made a key distinction: it supported the waiver only narrowly for COVID-19 vaccines, not for other technology such as medical treatments or tests, which had been included in the original waiver proposal last October. This narrowing of the waiver proposal is seen as an attempt to reduce the pharmaceutical industry’s opposition to it.

The shift in the U.S. stance might be enough to revive progress on the long-stalled waiver at the WTO meetings. Until now, the opposition from wealthy countries has prevented the WTO from moving to the next step in the process: text-based negotiations. Those negotiations, even if limited to the vaccine waiver proposal instead of the broader plan, now have a greater chance of moving ahead. The supporters of the waiver have already signaled that they are willing to revise the wording of their proposal.

“We will actively participate in text-based negotiations at the WTO needed to make that happen,” Ms. Tai said in her statement on Wednesday.

“Those negotiations will take time, given the consensus-based nature of the institution and the complexity of the issues involved.”

Health activists urged Canada to support the waiver. “Canada cannot continue to be idle in the fight to waive intellectual property rights while the rest of the world is working to end this global crisis,” said Diana Sarosi, director of policy and campaigns at Oxfam Canada.

In a statement, she said Canada has “chosen to sit on the sidelines while the U.S. stood up to support the world’s most vulnerable.” The new U.S. position is “a testament to the widespread public movement calling for an end to vaccine monopolies,” Ms. Sarosi said.

The G7 meeting was supposed to mark a return to something like diplomacy-as-normal. But it was jolted Wednesday by a COVID scare, serving a reminder that the pandemic remains the biggest threat facing the world today.

Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar was forced to pull out of the London gathering – the first face-to-face G7 meeting in two years – after two members of his country’s delegation tested positive. India is currently grappling with the world’s worst outbreak, and a dangerous new variant of the coronavirus, reporting more than 382,000 new cases and 3,786 deaths on Tuesday alone.

The meeting of foreign ministers – which sets the agenda for a G7 leaders’ summit in June in the English port of Falmouth – had been dubbed as “COVID-secure,” with participants tested daily and delegations separated by plastic screens during sessions.

Upon arrival, the Indian delegation were given a diplomatic exemption from the mandatory quarantine that Britain recently imposed on all travellers arriving from the country. Mr. Jaishankar and his staff are all now reportedly self-isolating.

Though not a member of the G7, India had been invited to participate on the sidelines of the foreign ministers’ meeting along with South Korea, Australia and South Africa.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, as host, and U.S. President Joe Biden have sought to broaden this year’s G7 from the usual gathering of the world’s largest economies – Canada, the United States, Japan, Britain, France, Germany and Italy – to a wider grouping of prominent democracies.

The main focus of the meeting was supposed to be the challenges posed by authoritarian states such as China and Russia. But COVID-19 – as it has so often over the past 16 months – quickly took over the agenda.

“As a measure of abundant caution and also out of consideration for others, I decided to conduct my engagements in the virtual mode,” Mr. Jaishankar posted on Twitter just before Wednesday’s meetings were scheduled to begin.

He later posted photos of himself sitting in his hotel room, having virtual conversations with various G7 foreign ministers, including Canada’s Marc Garneau. “So far, yet so near,” he posted alongside a photograph of himself watching British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab address the rest of the group.

After his virtual meeting with Mr. Jaishankar, Mr. Garneau announced that Canada would provide 25,000 vials of the antiviral medicine remdesivir as well as “up to 350 ventilators from its National Emergency Strategic Stockpile” to help India in its battle with the pandemic.

In a conference call with Canadian media, Mr. Garneau said the fact that testing had caught the presence of COVID among the Indian delegation was a credit to the stringent measures Britain had taken to protect those attending the meeting. Mr. Garneau said he had been tested five times since his arrival on Monday, and would self-isolate upon return in the same way all travellers arriving to Canada are currently required to.

He also defended the need for him to be present in London for the G-7 meeting at a time when many Canadians are being told to stay home.

“There are certain things where it is important to be face-to-face with leaders from other countries to discuss extremely important issues,” he said. “There’s a dimension that you get when you are face-to-face, particularly when you’re dealing with diplomacy, that is difficult to get when you’re Zooming with your counterparts.”

The G7 ministers, in their final statement, called on Beijing to allow the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights unfettered access to the Xinjiang region, where the Communist Party presides over a network of indoctrination camps and where there is also evidence of forced labour being used. Beijing was also criticized for the engineering the erosion of democracy in Hong Kong, and for blocking Taiwan’s participation in the WHO and other international fora.

The G7 also had harsh words for Russia, which was accused of a “systematic crackdown on opposition voices, human rights defenders, independent civil society, and media.” The Kremlin was also criticized for its “irresponsible and destabilizing behaviour,” including a recent military buildup near Russia’s borders with Ukraine.

“Foreign malign actors persist in their attempts to undermine democracies,” the final communiqué reads. “The G7 is committed to working together to show global leadership and take action to expose and deter these actors and to defend democracy.”