Senators urge Biden to back temporary WTO waiver of IP rights to speed vaccine access

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WASHINGTON, April 16 (Reuters) - Bernie Sanders and nine other Democratic senators urged President Joe Biden on Friday to back a temporary patent waiver for COVID-19 vaccines that would allow countries to manufacture treatments locally and accelerate the global vaccination effort.

World Trade Organization Director-General Ngozi Okonko-Iweala on Wednesday urged WTO member to address inequitable access to vaccines, with low-income countries administering just 0.2% of 700 million global doses.

She urged WTO members to advance negotiations on a proposal by India and South Africa and backed by over 80 WTO members that would temporarily waive the intellectual property (IP) rights of pharmaceutical companies. The issue will be discussed by WTO members in early May.

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U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai this week said the gaping divide between developed and developing countries' access to medicines, seen previously during the AIDS crisis, amounted to a market failure and was "completely unacceptable".

But Washington has not backed the temporary waiver of IP rights, which is opposed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and big pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer (PFE.N) and BioNTech (22UAy.DE), Moderna (MRNA.O), and Johnson & Johnson (JNJ.N).

They argue that waiving IP rights could reduce the safety of vaccines worldwide, and say other issues - such as improving distribution networks - are far more urgent priorities.

In their letter, the senators called on Biden to embrace the waiver to help end the pandemic. Slow vaccinations abroad will allow the virus to continue producing dangerous mutations, proponents say.

"To bring the pandemic to its quickest end and save the lives of Americans and people around the world, we ask that you prioritize people over pharmaceutical company profits by reversing the Trump position and announcing U.S. support for the WTO TRIPS waiver," they said.

Sixty former heads of state and 100 Nobel Prize winners also backed the waiver in a letter sent to Biden on Wednesday.

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Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Angus MacSwan

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