US President Joe Biden's administration on Wednesday announced its support for a global waiver on patent protections for Covid-19 vaccines, and will negotiate the terms at the WTO.
While intellectual property rights for businesses are important, Washington "supports the waiver of those protections for COVID-19 vaccines," US Trade Representative Katherine Tai said in a statement.
"This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures," she added.
Biden had been under intense pressure from world leaders to agree to waive protections for vaccine manufacturers in order to ramp up production and get the jabs out to more countries as rich nations have swept up the majority of the doses.
Tai said the United States will participate in the negotiations within the World Trade Organization but cautioned that discussions "will take time given the consensus-based nature of the institution and the complexity of the issues involved."
The global trade body has for months been facing calls led by India and South Africa to temporarily remove the intellectual property protections on Covid-19 vaccines, in a move proponents say would help boost production in developing countries that so far have received far fewer jabs.
But that notion has until now met fierce opposition from pharmaceutical giants and their host countries, which insist the patents are not the main roadblocks to scaling up production, and warn the move could hamper innovation.
WTO chief Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has been pressing for an international agreement to provide at least a temporary patent waiver.
"We need to have a sense of urgency on how we approach this issue of response to Covid-19 because the world is watching," she said earlier Wednesday, describing equitable access to the tools to fight the pandemic as the "moral and economic issue of our time."