Pentagon to seek approval to make COVID-19 vaccines mandatory

By Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The Pentagon on Monday said that it will seek U.S. President Joe Biden’s approval by the middle of September to require military members to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

After setting COVID-19 rules for federal workers, Biden last month directed the Pentagon to look into “how and when” it will require members of the military to take the vaccine.

The Defense Department is targeting mid-September for a vaccination deadline based on expectations for the Food and Drug Administration to give full approval to the Pfizer Inc and BioNTech SE vaccine. Currently it falls under an emergency use authorization.

“I strongly support Secretary (Lloyd) Austin’s message to the (military) today on the Department of Defense’s plan to add the COVID-19 vaccine to the list of required vaccinations for our service members not later than mid-September,” Biden said in a statement.

The deadline could be moved up if the FDA approves the vaccine earlier, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a memo. Austin said that he could act even sooner or recommend a different course if the situation worsened.

Two U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the vaccine could have been immediately mandated but that more than a month had been given with the hope of full FDA approval, which might reduce fears about the safety of the shot.

Top U.S. infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci has said that he hopes regulators could start granting full approval for the vaccines as soon as this month.

The U.S. military says around half the U.S. armed forces are already fully vaccinated, a number that climbs significantly when counting only active duty troops and excluding National Guard and reserve members.

Vaccination rates are highest in the Navy, which suffered from a high-profile outbreak last year aboard an aircraft carrier. About 73% of sailors are fully vaccinated.

That compares with the U.S. national average of about 60% of adults ages 18 and over who have been fully vaccinated.

Because U.S. troops are generally younger and fitter, relatively few U.S. servicemembers have died as a result of COVID-19 – just 28 in total, according to Pentagon data.

Many congressional Republicans have refused to say publicly whether they have been vaccinated, and some have attacked the shots as unnecessary or dangerous.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali; editing by Susan Heavey and Cynthia Osterman)

New York City, California mandate COVID-19 vaccines for government workers

By Gabriella Borter and Maria Caspani

NEW YORK (Reuters) – California and New York City will require government workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or be regularly tested for the virus, officials said on Monday, signaling a new level of urgency in their effort to stem a wave of infections caused by the Delta variant.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Monday that the city would require its more than 300,000 employees to get vaccinated by Sept. 13 or else get tested weekly. His announcement came a week after the city passed a vaccine mandate for all healthcare workers at city-run hospitals and clinics.

A few hours later, California Governor Gavin Newsom said that all state employees, some 246,000 people, would be required to get vaccinated starting in August or else be subjected to COVID-19 testing on a minimum weekly basis.

“We’re at a point now in this pandemic where an individual’s choice to not get vaccinated is impacting the rest of us,” Newsom told a press conference on Monday.

Federal and local officials have been warning about a rise in COVID-19 cases with increasing urgency in recent weeks. Across the country, many have aggressively emphasized the importance of getting vaccinated – including some Republican leaders who previously refrained from openly endorsing the vaccines.

On Monday, the Department of Veterans Affairs became the first federal agency to require its employees to get vaccinated.

The mandates this week mark the boldest efforts yet by government agencies to curb the country’s outbreak caused by the highly transmissible Delta variant of COVID-19, which was first found in India earlier this year.

The Delta variant has quickly caused case numbers to spike after the United States enjoyed a drop-off in cases and hospitalizations when vaccines became widely available in the spring.

The Delta variant has also delayed any consideration by the United States to lift existing travel restrictions in the near future, a White House official told Reuters.

At this point, the sharpest increases in COVID-19 cases are in places with lower vaccination rates. Florida, Texas and Missouri account for 40% of all new cases nationwide, with around one in five of all new U.S. cases occurring in Florida, White House adviser Jeffrey Zients said last week.

Just under 50% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The number of vaccine doses administered daily peaked at 4.63 million on April 10, according to CDC data, and it has stagnated and declined since.

On Sunday, the CDC reported an uptick in the number of vaccine doses administered in a day – 778,996, the most given in a 24-hour period since the United States reported giving 1.16 million doses on July 3.

MANDATE RESISTANCE

COVID-19 vaccine and testing mandates remain a point of contention and have already sparked legal opposition in the case of public universities. Opponents see them as a violation of individual rights.

But officials have justified them because the vaccines have proven to be safe and dramatically reduce people’s risk of hospitalization and death from the virus.

Some 57 medical associations on Monday published a statement calling for all healthcare and long-term care employers in the United States to require their employees to get vaccinated, calling it “the logical fulfillment of the ethical commitment of all healthcare workers to put patients as well as residents of long-term care facilities first.”

New York City’s largest public employee union, DC 37, took legal issue with the city’s mandate on Monday.

“If City Hall intends to test our members weekly, they must first meet us at the table to bargain. While we encourage everyone to get vaccinated and support measures to ensure our members’ health and wellbeing, weekly testing is clearly subject to mandatory bargaining,” Executive Director Henry Garrido said in a statement.

De Blasio cited the Delta variant as the city’s reason for moving beyond promoting voluntary vaccination.

“It was one thing to start with a heavy voluntary focus in the beginning and then incentive focus, but it’s quite clear the Delta variant has changed the game,” he said.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter, Maria Caspani, Jan Wolfe and David Shepardson; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

Vietnam to mix doses of Pfizer, AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines

HANOI(Reuters) – Vietnam will offer the coronavirus vaccine jointly developed by Pfizer and BioNTech as a second dose option for people first inoculated with the AstraZeneca vaccine, the government said on Tuesday.

Vietnam’s mass inoculation campaign is in its early stages, with fewer than 300,000 people fully vaccinated so far. It has so far used AstraZeneca’s viral vector vaccine and last week took delivery of 97,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech mRNA shot.

“Pfizer vaccines will be prioritized for people who were given first shot of AstraZeneca 8-12 weeks before,” the government said in a statement.

Several countries, including Canada, Spain and South Korea, have already approved such dose-mixing mainly due to concerns about rare and potentially fatal blood clots linked to the AstraZeneca vaccine.

A Spanish study found the Pfizer-AstraZeneca combination was highly safe and effective, according to preliminary results.

But the World Health Organization’s chief scientist advised on Monday against mixing and matching COVID-19 vaccines, calling it a “dangerous trend” since there was little data available about the health impact.

The Vietnamese government in a separate statement said its health ministry was in talks with India to secure 15 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine Covaxin.

The country has so far received around 8 million doses of vaccines from multiple sources, including international COVAX scheme, donations and its own purchases.

Vietnam has been trying to expedite its vaccination campaign as the pace of infections grow, having hit daily records eight times this month. It reported 2,031 new infections on Tuesday, most of those in the epicenter Ho Chi Minh City.

Prior to May 2021, it had recorded less than 3,000 coronavirus cases in total. Its caseload is now 34,500, with 130 deaths.

Vietnam said on Tuesday it would soon receive 1.5 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine donated by Australia and an additional batch of one million doses of the vaccine from Japan this week.

(Editing by Ed Davies and Martin Petty)

Exclusive: Let down by rich and failing the poor, global vaccine scheme to be shaken up

By Francesco Guarascio

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Shunned by rich countries and failing to meet the needs of the poorest, a program co-led by the World Health Organization (WHO) for fair distribution of COVID-19 vaccines is planning a shake-up, internal documents seen by Reuters show.

The COVAX program is far short of its target of delivering 2 billion doses by the end of the year, but does expect a big increase in supplies by early 2022, and wants to make sure that those, at least, reach the countries in direst need.

COVAX’s initial lofty ambitions to act as a clearing house for the world’s vaccines, collecting from the manufacturers in the most developed countries and quickly distributing to those in the most urgent need, have fallen flat.

So far, it has distributed a mere 90 million vaccines. While densely populated lower-income countries act as incubators for new and more dangerous strains of the coronavirus, some of the poorest countries have vaccinated less than 1% of their populations, according to estimates from Gavi, a global vaccine alliance that runs the scheme with the WHO.

The overhaul is meant to reduce COVAX’s financial risks, increase its focus on the countries most in need and reduce the participation of richer countries as both donors and recipients, according to a paper prepared by Gavi.

The document is expected to be adopted at a Gavi board meeting on Wednesday and Thursday.

“The suggestion is, subject to Board approval, to focus COVAX’s procurement efforts on all SFPs (self-financing participants) that will continue to need the facility, in such a way that enables simplified operations and reduced financial risks, based on the lessons learned over the past year,” a spokeswoman for Gavi said.

The WHO had no immediate comment, but usually lets Gavi speak about COVAX on its behalf.

CHARITY BEGINS AT HOME

Wealthy countries have generally preferred to use their financial clout to buy their own vaccines direct from the manufacturers.

And despite pleas from the WHO to share any surplus vaccines via its program, the United States, Japan and the European Union have all outlined plans to donate to countries directly, as well as to COVAX.

By prioritizing their own diplomatic and commercial interests, wealthy nations have in effect wrecked COVAX’s ambition to take overall charge of the global fight against the pandemic.

“The fact that Gavi’s board is now reviewing the way in which wealthier countries can continue to participate in the facility is in part a recognition that the set-up does not work,” said Kate Elder, senior policy adviser at the medical aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres.

About 190 countries are currently COVAX members, but one-third do not use its vaccines and only about 40 have launched their vaccination drives with jabs from COVAX, the Gavi document says.

In a separate internal document, Gavi estimates that membership may shrink to 120-130 next year.

Many rich nations are expected to step aside voluntarily, but the planned policy change will also make it costlier for middle-income countries to take part.

Whereas now Gavi takes significant financial risks in ordering vaccines on behalf of its members, next year middle-income nations that still need COVAX vaccines will have to pay for them fully in advance.

This means that countries in Latin America and the Middle East, as well as the likes of South Africa, may face higher costs and need to borrow money to secure doses.

PUTTING THE POOREST FIRST

However, the poorest countries, mostly in Africa and Southeast Asia, will keep the same conditions, with little or no costs to buy vaccines.

“The model would be redesigned with less flexible terms and conditions, aimed at simplification, and lowering financial risk to retain countries that need the facility whilst dis-incentivizing other countries from continued participation beyond the end of 2021,” one of the documents says.

And that should have tangible benefits for the poorest countries.

COVAX has raised nearly $10 billion, above its target for this year, and has begun receiving some surplus doses from rich nations. However, wealthy states’ earlier massive purchases of vaccines and curbs on exports from India, the facility’s main supplier, have left poorer countries short of supply.

Gavi believes that a projected increase in supply in the second half of the year could lift the share of those vaccinated in the poorest countries to nearly 30% by early 2022.

Gavi plans to spend $775 million to help countries distribute those vaccines and avoid repeating incidences of wastage caused by insufficient preparation and infrastructure.

With these countries facing a possible five-fold increase in the monthly throughput of vaccines, the risk of such wastage is high, one document says.

The money will be used to strengthen COVAX’s delivery system, provide better refrigeration equipment and improve healthcare systems, Gavi says.

(Reporting by Francesco Guarascio @fraguarascio; Editing by Josephine Mason)

Vaccine waiver talks a chance for WTO to show its relevance -U.S. trade chief Tai

By David Lawder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai said on Thursday that World Trade Organization negotiations over intellectual property waivers for COVID-19 vaccines is a chance for the deeply divided trade body to make itself relevant to the world’s needs.

Tai, speaking to the House Ways and Means Committee, said she was committed to entering negotiations that take into account concerns from all sides, including drug companies.

“The WTO has not got a record of moving quickly, or getting to yes, across 164 members who must all agree, very often,” Tai said. “This is the opportunity for the WTO to show its relevance for mankind.”

For a second day in a row, Tai heard criticism from Republican lawmakers that the intellectual property rights waiver will give critical biopharmaceutical technology to China, Russia and other strategic rivals while failing to increase vaccine supplies.

Republican Representative Devin Nunes told Tai that he is concerned China is one of the few countries that could quickly manufacture messenger RNA vaccines, a technology partly developed with U.S. tax dollars.

“It really seems like they (China) want to steal this very new technology, especially as it relates to the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines.”

Tai said the administration was working to exercise leadership on the issue to try to reach a solution that saves lives and puts the world back on a faster growth track, which will benefit the United States.

India and South Africa, the proponents of the original, much broader proposal are expressing “that they feel extremely vulnerable in not having access to vaccines and not being able to make them either,” Tai said,

On Wednesday, Tai told a Senate hearing that companies making vaccines could be “a hero” by helping the world gain increased access to COVID-19 vaccines.

She declined to discuss details of her consultations with drug companies before announcing the decision to join WTO waiver negotiations last week, but said that some are driven by more than their obligations to shareholders.

“Some of them do see themselves as important actors in the public health ecosystem in the world.”

Tai said that the intellectual property waiver was just one of a number of actions that would be required to increase manufacturing and equitable distribution of vaccines around the world.

(Reporting by David LawderEditing by Marguerita Choy)

Britain open to talks over vaccine waivers with U.S, others at WTO

By Alistair Smout

LONDON (Reuters) -Britain is open to talks with the United States and other World Trade Organization members on the issue of IP waivers for COVID-19 vaccines, a government spokesman said after pressure from charities to back U.S. proposals.

U.S. President Joe Biden last week threw his support behind waiving intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines.

British and European Union officials have been skeptical about the usefulness of the proposal, while saying they are prepared to discuss it.

“We are engaging with the U.S. and other WTO members constructively on the TRIPS waiver issue, but we need to act now to expand production and distribution worldwide,” the British government spokesman said, adding WTO negotiations on the waiver would be lengthy as they would need unanimous support.

“So while we will constructively engage in the IP discussions, we must continue to push ahead with action now including voluntary licensing agreements for vaccines.”

Britain has promised to donate surplus vaccines to other countries when it is able to, but says it has no spare shots to give at the moment.

About two-thirds of the adult population of Britain has received a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, while Britain has ordered 517 million doses in all.

PEOPLE’S VACCINE

Hundreds of charities, academics and politicians this week signed a letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson calling on him to back Biden’s move on IP waivers.

Pharma companies and other critics of the waiver move say producing COVID-19 vaccines is complex and setting up production at new facilities would divert resources from efforts to boost production at existing sites, potentially compromising safety.

On Tuesday around a dozen protesters sat outside AstraZeneca’s headquarters in Cambridge, eastern England, to coincide with the pharma firm’s annual general meeting (AGM). Some chained themselves to the doors and others unfurled a banner saying “People’s Vaccine not Profit Vaccine.”

AstraZeneca, which has entered into manufacturing partnerships to produce Oxford University’s vaccine candidate globally, has pledged to not profit from sales of the vaccine during the COVID-19 pandemic, though the campaigners highlight that the company can determine when that pledge ends.

Asked about the British government’s stance, an AstraZeneca spokesman said the company agreed that the “extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures”, and that this had already informed its approach.

“We have established 20 supply lines spread across the globe and we have shared the IP and know-how with dozens of partners,” the spokesman told Reuters. “In fact, our model is similar to what an open IP model could look like.”

AstraZeneca Chief Executive Pascal Soriot said last month that it would maintain its no-profit pledge into 2022, and would keep no-profit or modest pricing for parts of the world thereafter.

(Additional reporting by Andy Couldridge in Cambridge, editing by William James, Guy Faulconbridge and Mark Heinrich)

Drugmakers say Biden misguided over vaccine patent waiver

By Stephanie Nebehay and Ludwig Burger

GENEVA/FRANKFURT (Reuters) -Drugmakers on Thursday said U.S. President Joe Biden’s support for waiving patents of COVID-19 vaccines could disrupt a fragile supply chain and that rich countries should instead share more generously with the developing world.

Biden on Wednesday threw his support behind waiving intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines, angering research-based pharmaceutical companies.

If adopted by the World Trade Organization, the proposal would invite new manufacturers that lack essential know-how and oversight from the inventors to crowd out established contractors, the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA) said.

“I have heard many (vaccine makers) talking about ‘our resources are stretched, our technicians are stretched’,” IFPMA Director General Thomas Cueni told Reuters. He warned of a possible free for all if “sort of rogue companies” were allowed to become involved.

Vaccine developers echoed his comments that waiving intellectual property rights was not a solution.

“Patents are not the limiting factor for the production or supply of our vaccine. They would not increase the global production and supply of vaccine doses in the short and middle term,” said Germany’s BioNTech, which aims to supply up 3 billion doses together with Pfizer this year.

BioNTech said it took more than a decade to develop its vaccines manufacturing process and replicating it required experienced personnel and a meticulous technology transfer, among several other factors beyond patents.

Another German company CureVac, which hopes to release trial results on its messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) vaccine as early as this month, said patents were not to blame for supply bottlenecks.

“Since mRNA technology has emerged as the key technology in the fight against COVID-19, the world now needs the same raw materials in unfathomable amounts. The biggest problem is how to coordinate this,” a spokeswoman said.

IFPMA’s Cueni said the real bottlenecks were trade barriers, in particular the U.S. Defense Production Act (DPA).

The DPA is a decades-old U.S. law that prioritized procurement orders related to U.S. national defense, but it has been widely used in non-military crises, such as natural disasters.

Cueni said the way to kickstart low-income countries’ vaccination campaigns was for rich countries to donate vaccine, rather than widen eligibility to young and healthy people at home.

Moderna, which on Thursday reported quarterly results, said waiving intellectual property rights would not help to increase supply of its vaccines in 2021 and 2022.

The U.S. drugmaker said last year it would not enforce its vaccine patents. CureVac said on Thursday it would also not enforce its patents during the pandemic and that it knew of no other developer that would.

Italy’s ReiThera which is in late-stage tests on an experimental COVID-19 vaccine, was also critical of patent waivers.

“There is proprietary know-how that has to be transferred by the owner. And then there is the problem with process materials, which at the moment have delivery times of almost a year,” ReiThera’s chief of technology Stefano Colloca said.

In contrast to the industry reaction, the GAVI vaccine alliance, which co-leads the COVAX dose-sharing program with the WHO and faces major supply constraints, welcomed Biden’s support for waiving intellectual property rights.

(Writing by Ludwig BurgerAdditional Reporting by Emilio Parodi in Milan; editing by Barbara Lewis and Jane Merriman)

U.S. backs giving poorer countries access to COVID-19 vaccine patents, reversing stance

By Andrea Shalal, Jeff Mason and David Lawder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -President Joe Biden on Wednesday threw his support behind waiving intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines, bowing to mounting pressure from Democratic lawmakers and more than 100 other countries, but angering pharmaceutical companies.

Biden voiced his support for a waiver – a sharp reversal of the previous U.S. position – in remarks to reporters, followed swiftly by a statement from his top trade negotiator, Katherine Tai, who backed negotiations at the World Trade Organization.

“This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures,” Tai said in a statement, amid growing concern that big outbreaks in India could allow the rise of vaccine-resistant strains of the deadly virus, undermining a global recovery.

Shares in vaccine makers Moderna Inc and Novavax Inc dropped several percent in regular trade, although Pfizer Inc stock fell only slightly.

The head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, called Biden’s move a “MONUMENTAL MOMENT IN THE FIGHT AGAINST #COVID19” on Twitter, and said it reflected “the wisdom and moral leadership of the United States.”

Pharmaceutical companies working on vaccines have reported sharp revenue and profit gains during the crisis. The industry’s biggest lobby group warned that Biden’s unprecedented step would undermine the companies’ response to the pandemic and compromise safety.

One industry source said U.S. companies would fight to ensure any waiver agreed upon was as narrow and limited as possible.

Robert W. Baird analyst Brian Skorney said he believed the waiver discussion amounted to grandstanding by the Biden administration and would not kick off a major change in patent law.

“I’m skeptical that it would have any sort of broader long- term impact across the industry,” he said.

Biden backed a waiver during the 2020 presidential campaign in which he also promised to re-engage with the world after four years of contentious relations between former President Donald Trump and U.S. allies. Biden has come under intensifying pressure to share U.S. vaccine supply and technology to fight the virus around the globe.

His decision comes amid a devastating outbreak in India, which accounted for 46% of the new COVID-19 cases recorded worldwide last week, and signs that the outbreak is spreading to Nepal, Sri Lanka and other neighbors.

NEGOTIATIONS TO TAKE TIME

Wednesday’s statement paved the way for what could be months of negotiations to hammer out a specific waiver plan. WTO decisions require a consensus of all 164 members.

Tai cautioned deliberations would take time but that the United States would also continue to push for increased production and distribution of vaccines – and raw materials needed to make them – around the world.

The United States and several other countries previously blocked negotiations at the WTO about a proposal led by India and South Africa to waive protections for some patents and technology and boost vaccine production in developing countries.

Critics of the waiver say producing COVID-19 vaccines is complex and setting up production at new facilities would divert resources from efforts to boost production at existing sites.

They say that pharmaceutical companies in rich and developing countries have already reached more than 200 technology transfer agreements to expand delivery of COVID-19 vaccines, a sign the current system is working.

The WTO meets again on Thursday, but it was not immediately clear if the U.S. decision would sway other opponents, including the European Union and Britain.

The U.S. government poured billions of dollars into research and advance purchases for COVID-19 vaccines last year when the shots were still in the early stages of development and it was unclear which, if any, would prove to be safe and effective at protecting against the virus.

Wednesday’s move allows Washington to be responsive to the demands of the political left and developing countries, while using WTO negotiations to narrow the scope of the waiver, said one source familiar with the deliberations. It also buys time to boost vaccine supplies through more conventional means.

Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said such a patent waiver “amounts to the expropriation of the property of the pharmaceutical companies whose innovation and financial investments made the development of COVID-19 vaccines possible in the first place.”

But proponents say the pharmaceutical companies would suffer only minor losses because any waiver would be temporary – and they would still be able to sell follow-on shots that could be required for years to come.

Pfizer said on Tuesday it expects COVID-19 vaccine sales of at least $26 billion this year and that demand for the shots from governments around the world fighting to halt the pandemic could contribute to its growth for years to come.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal, Jeff Mason and David Lawder; Additional reporting by Steve Holland, Michael Erman, Patricia Zengerle and Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Peter Cooney)

G7 scolds China and Russia over threats, bullying, rights abuses

By William James, Guy Faulconbridge and Elizabeth Piper

LONDON (Reuters) – The Group of Seven scolded both China and Russia on Wednesday, casting the Kremlin as malicious and Beijing as a bully, but beyond words there were few concrete steps aside from expressing support for Taiwan and Ukraine.

Founded in 1975 as a forum for the West’s richest nations to discuss crises such as the OPEC oil embargo, the G7 this week addressed what it perceives as the biggest current threats: China, Russia and the coronavirus pandemic.

G7 foreign ministers, in a 12,400-word communique, said Russia was trying to undermine democracies and threatening Ukraine while China was guilty of human rights abuses and of using its economic clout to bully others.

There was, however, little concrete action mentioned in the communique that would unduly worry either Chinese President Xi Jinping or Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The G7 said it would bolster collective efforts to stop China’s “coercive economic policies” and to counter Russian disinformation – part of a move to present the West as a much broader alliance than just the core G7 countries.

“I think (China is) more likely to need to, rather than react in anger, it is more likely going to need to take a look in the mirror and understand that it needs to take into account this growing body of opinion, that thinks these basic international rules have got to be adhered to,” British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said.

Russia denies it is meddling beyond its borders and says the West is gripped by anti-Russian hysteria. China says the West is a bully and that its leaders have a post-imperial mindset that makes them feel they can act like global policemen.

China’s spectacular economic and military rise over the past 40 years is among the most significant geopolitical events of recent history, alongside the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union that ended the Cold War.

XI AND PUTIN

The West, which combined is much bigger than China and Russia economically and militarily, has struggled to come up with an effective response to either China or Russia.

“We will work collectively to foster global economic resilience in the face of arbitrary, coercive economic policies and practices,” the G7 ministers said on China.

They said they supported Taiwan’s participation in World Health Organization forums and the World Health Assembly – and expressed concerns about “any unilateral actions that could escalate tensions” in the Taiwan Strait.

China regards Taiwan as its own territory and opposes any official Taiwanese representation on an international level.

On Russia, the G7 was similarly supportive of Ukraine but offered little beyond words.

“We are deeply concerned that the negative pattern of Russia’s irresponsible and destabilizing behavior continues,” G7 ministers said.

“This includes the large build-up of Russian military forces on Ukraine’s borders and in illegally-annexed Crimea, its malign activities aimed at undermining other countries’ democratic systems, its malicious cyber activity, and (its) use of disinformation.”

VACCINES

On the coronavirus pandemic, the G7 pledged to work with industry to expand the production of affordable COVID-19 vaccines, but stopped short of calling for a waiver of intellectual property rights of major pharma firms.

“We commit to working with  industry  to facilitate expanded manufacturing at scale of affordable COVID-19  vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics and their component parts,” the G7 foreign ministers said in a joint statement.

They said the work would include “promoting partnerships between companies, and  encouraging voluntary licensing and tech transfer agreements on mutually agreed terms”.

(Additional reporting by Alistair Smout; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Lawmakers urge Biden to back ‘moral’ patent waiver to speed vaccine access

By Andrea Shalal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. lawmakers and nonprofit groups on Friday heaped pressure on the Biden administration to back a temporary patent waiver for COVID-19 vaccines to help poor countries contain the pandemic.

The groups delivered a petition signed by two million people, adding to separate letters already sent to U.S. President Joe Biden by a group of senators, House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, nearly 100 members of the House and 60 former heads of state and 100 Nobel Prize winners.

Senator Bernie Sanders said it was also in the United States’ own interest to ensure as many people were vaccinated as quickly as possible, to limit the chance of virus mutations that could prompt further U.S. lockdowns. But he also appealed to Biden’s desire to rebuild U.S. credibility in the world.

“On this enormously important health issue, this moral issue, the United States has got to do the right thing,” he told a news conference.

The United States and a handful of other big countries have blocked negotiations at the World Trade Organization (WTO) involving a proposal spearheaded by India and South Africa that now has the support of 100 WTO members. The proposal would temporarily waive the intellectual property (IP) rights of pharmaceutical companies to allow developing countries to produce vaccines.

Proponents are pushing Washington to change course ahead of the next formal WTO meeting on the issue on May 5.

‘COMPLETELY UNACCEPTABLE’

One source briefed on the issue told Reuters U.S. trade officials realized “that something needs to be done, whether it’s the TRIPS waiver or some other solution,” a reference to the WTO’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property agreement.

A second source said the administration was concerned that worsening COVID-19 outbreaks in India and other low-income countries could undermine progress made in the United States.

The office of U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai had no immediate comment on the petitions or the latest comments.

Tai last week likened the huge gap in access to medicines to the AIDS crisis and called it “completely unacceptable,” but stopped short of backing the waiver, which is opposed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and big pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer and BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson.

Critics 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.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Aurora Ellis)