The United States threw its weight behind a waiver on patent protections for Covid-19 vaccines as the GAVI vaccine alliance urged Washington to help manufacturers transfer know-how to boost global production.
Rich nations have faced accusations of hoarding shots while poor countries struggle to get inoculation programs off the ground, with the virus surging across the developing world in contrast to the easing of restrictions in Europe and the United States.
Under intense pressure to ease protections for vaccine manufacturers, Washington's Trade Representative Katherine Tai said Wednesday the country "supports the waiver of those protections for Covid-19 vaccines".
"The extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures," she said in a statement.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus praised the "historic" move and said it marked "a monumental moment in the fight against Covid-19".
Meanwhile, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen -- who has previously voiced reluctance to waive patents -- said yesterday the bloc was ready to discuss the US proposal.
EU governments lined up to weigh in, with French President Emmanuel Macron saying he was "absolutely in favour" of a global waiver, while Germany said it was open to discussing the proposal.
Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday said he supported the idea of a waiver on patent protections for coronavirus vaccines and urged his government to consider lifting them for Russia's jabs.
"We are hearing from Europe an idea that, in my opinion, deserves attention -- namely, to remove patent protections from vaccines against Covid-19 altogether," Putin said during a televised meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Tatiana Golikova.
Russia has registered three coronavirus vaccines, and yesterday approved a fourth -- a single-dose version of its Sputnik V jab called Sputnik Light, reports AFP.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government welcomed Biden's announcement.
The Africa Union's health watchdog also praised the United States' support for waiver on patent protections as a "remarkable expression of leadership".
But the US move is opposed by a consortium of big pharmaceutical companies, which described the decision as "disappointing" and warned it could hamper innovation.
Drugmakers said Biden's move could disrupt a fragile supply chain, and urged rich countries instead to share vaccines more generously with the developing world.
The International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations said a waiver would invite new manufacturers that lacked essential know-how and oversight.
While Wall Street's main indexes opened flat on Thursday, vaccine makers' shares fell. Moderna was down 9.1% at 1351 GMT. Pfizer fell 3.6% and Novavax fell 6.2%. In London, AstraZeneca, which has sold its vaccine at cost price, was down less than 0.1%.
Shares in Asia-listed vaccine makers -- including Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical, CanSino Biologics and JCR Pharmaceutical sinking -- tumbled yesterday after the US announcement.
The move "probably isn't great news for the vaccine manufacturers who will now face generic copies of their vaccine", said Olivier d'Assier, head of APAC applied research at Qontigo GmbH.
More than 155 million people have been reported to be infected by the coronavirus and almost 3.4 million have died, according to a Reuters tally.
Meanwhile, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch yesterday urged the Covax global vaccine-sharing scheme to "enhance transparency" and publish its contracts with jab manufacturers.
In a joint statement, HRW, Amnesty and the US consumer rights advocacy group Public Citizen said they had written to Covax with recommendations relating to transparency, and vaccine availability and affordability.
"Governments and other donors funding Covax should demand maximum transparency and accountability, including to verify all commitments by companies to supply Covax at non-profit prices or minimal profit pricing through third-party audits whose results are publicly shared," they said.