This month, the Biden administration announced its support for a waiver of intellectual property (IP) protections relating to the production of COVID-19 vaccines. Few would take issue with the purported goal of such a waiver—speeding access to these life-saving vaccines in nations still deep in the throes of this global pandemic, where demand for vaccines far outstrips their supply. But in reality, the waiver proposal creates far more problems than it solves, raising disputes under international IP agreements while failing to address the more significant logistical and supply chain obstacles to vaccine access.
As a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO), the United States is party to the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, called the TRIPS Agreement. The TRIPS Agreement sets forth minimum requirements to which each member nation agrees with respect to the protection of intellectual property of other members. Put another way, the TRIPS Agreement compels the United States (and other members) to respect and protect the fundamental IP rights of entities of other member nations. This being the case, the United States cannot implement a COVID-19 vaccine waiver on its own. Any IP waiver would require broad support among the members of the TRIPS Agreement.