International support grew Thursday for a US proposal to waive patents on much-needed coronavirus vaccines, as India posted record deaths and infections from a catastrophic wave swamping the country.
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".
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the announcement was "a monumental moment in the fight against Covid-19".
The African Union's health watchdog also praised it as a "remarkable expression of leadership".
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen recently voiced reluctance to waive patents, but said Thursday that Brussels was ready to discuss the proposal, a stance echoed by European economic powerhouse Germany.
But there was far more enthusiasm from other national capitals including Paris, Rome and Vienna.
"This pandemic has taught us that we can only win together," said Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza.
Russian President Vladimir Putin also said he supported the idea of a waiver on patent protections for coronavirus vaccines, as Russia registered a single-dose virus jab called Sputnik Light.
- Bad news for big pharma -
However the move is opposed by a consortium of big pharmaceutical companies, which described the decision as "disappointing" and warned it could hamper innovation.
Shares in Asia-listed vaccine makers -- including Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical, CanSino Biologics and JCR Pharmaceutical sinking -- tumbled Thursday after the US announcement.
Supporters of the waiver say that easing patent restrictions will spur production of low-cost generic vaccines, helping poor countries that are struggling to immunise their people.
Opponents argue the move will damage intellectual property rights and erode the profit incentive, ultimately affecting pharmaceutical research and development.
German firm BioNTech said patent protection was not holding back production or supply of Covid vaccines and that scrapping them would not lead to an increase in jabs in the short and medium term.
India has been leading the fight to allow more drugmakers to manufacture the vaccines, as it faces a surge that has seen patients die in streets outside hospitals due to bed and medical oxygen shortages.
The country Thursday reported almost 4,000 Covid-19 deaths and more than 412,000 infections -- both new records -- dashing hopes that the catastrophic recent surge may have been easing following several days of falling case numbers.
A top Indian official had warned Wednesday that the worst could still be to come, describing a third wave as "inevitable given the high levels of circulating virus" and saying the country badly needs more oxygen from other countries.
"We should prepare for new waves," said K. Vijay Raghavan, the Indian government's principal scientific advisor.
Around 230 million Indians fell into poverty due to the pandemic last year with young people and women the hardest hit, and the current second wave threatens to make matters even worse, according to a new study.
- Global surge -
Also seeing rising coronavirus cases is Egypt, which announced a partial shutdown of malls and restaurants and called off festivities for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr to curb the spread.
The country has now recorded nearly 232,000 cases including more than 13,000 deaths, with Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouli saying it was in a "third wave".
Eid celebrations are also facing disruption in Muslim-majority Malaysia, where new rules in the capital Kuala Lumpur will see only essential businesses allowed to operate and restaurant dining-in banned after daily cases topped 3,000 in recent days.
Authorities were similarly moving to stem a cluster in the Australian city of Sydney on Thursday, where two new infections sparked a hunt for the source of its first local Covid-19 cases in more than a month.
Joining India in breaking records for Covid-19 deaths this week was Argentina, which recorded 633 deaths in 24 hours on Wednesday despite stepped-up measures to reduce the movement of people across the country.
As Europe gears up for the summer holiday season, Israel was added to an EU safe list for countries whose nationals can freely travel to the continent.
And in the sports world, there was hope for the Olympic Games in Tokyo as Pfizer/BioNTech said they would supply vaccines for athletes.
The pandemic has killed over 3.2 million people worldwide since the virus first emerged in late 2019, according to an AFP compilation of official data.
The US is the worst-affected country with almost 580,000 deaths, followed by Brazil with over 414,000 and then India with over 230,000.