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U.S. trade czar meets unions, companies as pressure mounts for IP waiver to boost vaccinations

FILE PHOTO: Katherine C. Tai addresses the Senate Finance committee hearings to examine her nomination to be United States Trade Representative, with the rank of Ambassador, in Washington, DC

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. trade czar Katherine Tai is meeting with unions, industry executives and advocacy groups as Washington faces mounting pressure to back a temporary waiver of intellectual property rights to accelerate COVID-19 vaccinations around the world.

U.S. Trade Representative Tai, who helped broker Sunday’s agreement in a thorny trade case involving South Korean battery makers, is seeking input before a virtual World Trade Organization meeting on the issue on Wednesday.

Tai met with representatives from more than 20 unions, including the AFL-CIO, International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the Association of Flight Attendants, her office said.

She underscored the Biden administration’s commitment to increasing COVID-19 vaccine production and distribution, both at home and worldwide, USTR said, seeking the organizations’ views on increasing vaccine availability and preventing the emergence and spread of new variants.

Biden’s top trade negotiator also met with officials from eight groups, including Public Citizen, Oxfam America, Human Rights Watch and Doctors without Borders, who want Washington to change course and allow an increase in the production of vaccines.

WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala will convene major manufacturers, banking officials and ministers from wealthy and developing countries on Wednesday to discuss vaccine export restrictions and a waiver of IP rights for COVID-19 drugs.

Okonjo-Iweala told Reuters on Monday she believed members could break the current deadlock on the IP waiver issue, but no details of a possible compromise have emerged.

Dozens of countries are backing a proposal by India and South Africa to suspend COVID-19 vaccine and other medical patents to speed up technology transfers to manufacturers with spare production capacity, but the United States, Britain and other rich countries have blocked the measure.

Winning approval for the plan requires backing by a consensus of the WTO’s 164 members.

Big drug companies oppose patent waivers and say appropriate patent protections ensure that private investors have an incentive to pump money into research and development.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Karishma Singh)

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