US Trade Representative Katherine Tai said on Wednesday she is pushing for a waiver of Covid-19 vaccine intellectual property rights because the United States and drug makers have "an obligation to help save the world right now."
Tai, speaking at a US Senate Finance Committee hearing, said she views the World Trade Organization (WTO) talks as a way to remove the intellectual property issue as an obstacle to vaccine production. She backed the WTO negotiations last week.
She praised the work of US companies in quickly developing and producing safe and effective vaccines, adding that on intellectual property, "The message that I want to give to them is, 'You can be a hero here.'"
Several Republican senators criticized Tai for "giving away" US innovations to foreign competitors by supporting the WTO negotiations.
Tai said she views the talks to be less about preventing other countries from "stealing" US technology and more about finding a way to have a positive impact on people's lives by ending the coronavirus pandemic.
"What we are trying to accomplish is the saving of lives," she said, adding that ending the pandemic is a necessary first step in any trade policy going forward.
"Unless we are able to bring the rest of the world's economies back online, there's not going to be a lot of upside for us in what we're going to be doing" on trade, Tai said.
India is experiencing a pandemic tragedy of "unimaginable scale" and South Africa, the other main proponent of vaccine waivers, has no facilities to produce vaccines and would need them to end the pandemic on the African continent, Tai said.
Negotiations at the WTO will take time, with a process for negotiations just starting now, Tai added.
She added that she did not see waiver talks as leading to a "slippery slope" of a broader erosion of intellectual property rights, as the current crisis is unique and threatening millions of lives. Such waivers on clean energy technologies would not be necessary to fight the crisis of climate change, Tai said.
Asked by Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren whether USTR would support a broader WTO intellectual property waiver on Covid-19 treatments, therapeutics, protective equipment and other medical products, Tai said she is currently only focused on increasing vaccine access and equity.