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 temporary waiver - a sharp reversal of the previous U.S. position - after a speech at the White House, followed swiftly by an official statement from his chief trade negotiator, Katherine Tai.
"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 a number of makers of vaccines for COVID-19 tumbled on the news. Two of the biggest vaccine makers are U.S. companies - Moderna Inc and Pfizer Inc.
Biden's move won praise from the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who called it a "MONUMENTAL MOMENT IN THE FIGHT AGAINST #COVID19" on Twitter.
The Biden administration told pharmaceutical companies - which have reported sharp revenue and profit gains during the crisis - about its plans ahead of the announcement, a senior administration official said.
The pharmaceutical industry's biggest lobby group warned that Biden's unprecedented step would undermine the companies' response to the pandemic and compromise safety.
Biden, who backed a waiver during the 2020 presidential campaign, has made fighting the coronavirus a top priority of his administration and the rollout of vaccines in the United States has led to a decline in case numbers and deaths.
The Democratic president, who campaigned on a promise to re-engage with the world after four years of contentious relations between former President Donald Trump and U.S. allies, 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.
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. The United States would also continue to push for increased production and distribution of vaccines around the world, she said.
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 mRNA vaccines is complex and setting up production at new facilities would divert resources from efforts to boost production at existing sites.
Tai spoke on Wednesday with several foreign counterparts and some U.S. lawmakers to explain the shift in the U.S. approach, an administration source said.
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 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 the 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 will suffer only minor losses because any waiver would be temporary - and they will 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.