After Bill Gates' Opposition, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Says 'Yes' to 'Narrow' Patent Waivers

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced Thursday its support for “a narrow waiver” of intellectual property protections for Covid-19 vaccines—a shift from the foundation’s previous stance on the issue that comes amid sustained scrutiny over Big Pharma’s role in blocking such a move.

Foundation CEO Mark Suzman’s statement, reported first by Devex, came a day after the Biden administration—in the face of global pressure—announced its support for a TRIPS waiver proposal at the World Trade Organization.

In his remarks, Suzman pointed to “heartbreaking surges in India and Brazil” and said “there’s much more to be done” to increase vaccine access.

“No barriers should stand in the way of equitable access to vaccines, including intellectual property,” he added, “which is why we are supportive of a narrow waiver during the pandemic.”

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The announcement come less than three weeks after billionaire Bill Gates, co-chair and trustee of the foundation that bears his name, said in an interview with Sky News that he was against sharing vaccine recipes with the world as a way to stem the global crisis.

Musing on the possible motive behind the change in the foundation’s position on patent waivers, Health Global Access Project on Friday attributed the reversal to when “you see history being written and realize you’re on the wrong side of it.”

Journalist Adam H. Johnson responded to Suzman’s statement with a Twitter thread saying that the prospect of a “narrow” waiver was worthy of scrutiny and suggested it was a sign of corporate interests moving “to coopt the patent waiver debate and make sure it’s as watered down and temporary as possible.”

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And Nick Dearden, director of Global Justice Now, also says a “narrow patent waiver isn’t enough.”

Writing at The Nation on Friday, Tim Schwab said the recent reporting on Bill Gates’s comments on the issue “may have understated the full scope of the Gates Foundation’s interests in this debate—like the sprawling array of intellectual property the charity has acquired access to through its grants and investments. Or the fact that the foundation co-owns a vaccine company.” Schwab continued:

“It is increasingly urgent to ask if Gates’s multiple roles in the pandemic—as a charity, a business, an investor, and a lobbyist—are about philanthropy and giving away money, or about taking control and exercising power—monopoly power,” wrote Schwab.

As Schwab noted, Gates was among the stakeholders that recently met with U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai regarding the TRIPS waiver originally put forth last fall by India and South Africa.

To the cheers of health justice campaigners, Tai announced May 5, a week after her virtual meeting with Gates, that the U.S. would back patent waiver negotiations at the WTO as a way to help end the pandemic.

“These extraordinary times and circumstances of call for extraordinary measures,” said Tai.

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