US 'evaluating' WTO proposals to ease patent protection rules on vaccines: Official

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Washington is working with WTO members to ensure "equitable" access to Covid-19 vaccines, a US trade official said Friday, but stopped short of signaling a commitment to waiving patent protections.

Speaking as the WTO was holding another meeting in Geneva to seek waivers to intellectual property rights that would allow poor countries faster access to the coronavirus jabs, the US Trade Representative (USTR) said in a report that it is "evaluating the efficacy of proposals" in the multilateral bodies.

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The push to ease up on patent protections is being led by South Africa and India. The latter country is being ravaged by a surge in infections, with another 385,000 new cases reported over the past 24 hours -- a global record -- and almost 3,500 deaths, according to official data.

But the United States has yet to agree, though a senior USTR official told reporters, "The top priority of the United States is saving lives and ending the pandemic."

"We are working with our global partners to explore pragmatic and effective steps to surge production and equitable distribution of vaccines," the official said.

USTR Katherine Tai has met in recent weeks with executives from vaccine manufacturers Moderna, Pfizer and AstraZeneca as well as tech entrepreneur and philanthropist Bill Gates to discuss the issue.

Newly-installed WTO chief Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has made the vaccine issue a top priority and brought together stakeholders to thrash out a solution, including her proposal for a temporary waiver.

But the powerful US Chamber of Commerce on Friday pushed back against "the mistaken belief that IP rights can be a barrier to access for COVID-19 vaccines."

"Let me be clear: IP rights help -- they don't hinder -- access to innovation by enabling long-term investments," the chamber's Senior Vice President Patrick Kilbride said in a statement.

The White House said Friday the United States now has 100 million people fully vaccinated.

Of the more than 835 million vaccine doses administered as of April 15, 48 percent have been in high-income countries, and just 0.1 percent have been administered in the 29 lowest-income countries, according to AFP calculations.

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