US President Joe Biden has called on countries attending a World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting next week to waive intellectual property protections on coronavirus vaccines, as international concern is rising over a new coronavirus variant detected in South Africa.
In a statement on Friday, Biden said the discovery of the new variant demonstrates that the pandemic will not end until the entire world has equal access to vaccines.
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“The news about this new variant should make clearer than ever why this pandemic will not end until we have global vaccinations,” Biden said. “This news today reiterates the importance of moving on this quickly.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) on Friday designated the new coronavirus strain – which it dubbed Omicron after a letter in the Greek alphabet – a “variant of concern”. Omicron has been blamed for a surge in new infections in South Africa.
Concerns about the new variant’s potential spread also prompted several countries, including the US, to announce travel restrictions on Thursday and Friday for people from countries in southern Africa – a move that South Africa’s health minister slammed as “unjustified”.
Omicron’s emergence comes just days before WTO officials as well as 164 member states are scheduled to meet on November 30 in Geneva.
WTO negotiations are deadlocked over a proposal by India and South Africa to waive intellectual property (IP) rights for COVID-19 vaccines and supplies.
The European Union, as well as the United Kingdom and Switzerland, have opposed such a move.
India has accused developed countries of “preventing access to vaccines for poor countries”, leading to deaths. Switzerland’s ambassador to the WTO Didier Chambovey said on Thursday that the country was open to compromise but remained opposed to a full waiver.
Despite Biden’s statement on Friday, some public health experts have said the US has not done enough to provide vaccines overseas.
While many developing countries have yet to widely administer first shots to their citizens, the US has in recent weeks pushed forward with booster shots for Americans and approved the jabs to children aged five to 11.
Biden on Friday said the US has donated more vaccines worldwide than all other countries combined, while it publicly announced its support for IP waivers for COVID-19 vaccines earlier this year in a move welcomed by the head of the WHO.
“I call on the nations gathering next week for the World Trade Organization ministerial meeting to meet the U.S. challenge to waive intellectual property protections for COVID vaccines, so these vaccines can be manufactured globally,” Biden’s statement read.
“I endorsed this position in April; this news today reiterates the importance of moving on this quickly.”
Meanwhile, the US said it plans to bar entry to most non-American travellers from South Africa, South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, formerly known as Swaziland,, Mozambique and Malawi starting on Monday due to concerns over Omicron.
“As a precautionary measure until we have more information, I am ordering additional air travel restrictions from South Africa and seven other countries,” Biden said.