When the Biden administration made its surprise announcement last week that it would seek to waive American patent protections on coronavirus vaccines, many were quick to cheer this as evidence that the president’s much-beloved slogan about global leadership, “America’s back,” was already becoming something more than mere rhetoric.
Here was Washington appearing to put self-interest aside for the benefit of global public health, and in doing so, it would not only be taking on the American pharmaceutical giants that had pioneered the most important vaccine technologies in the first phase of this crisis, but also those of America’s European allies, some of which—particularly Germany—are more reluctant to relinquish lucrative patent rights of their own.
The Biden administration’s sudden move came in response to intense pressure amid news of the devastating spread of the coronavirus in India. This was the first time that a vivid sense of COVID-19’s deadly impact in another country had so thoroughly penetrated American media markets since the virus ravaged Italy and Spain one year ago, and for good reason. India is not just any country. It boasts the earth’s second-largest population and is the country that the world has been desperately counting on to provide vaccines for others—and especially for poor nations. It is, moreover, a partner that Washington has long courted as a friendly strategic and democratic counterweight to China.