EU says ready to discuss waiver of Covid-19 vaccine patents

The European Union is ready to discuss a proposal, now backed by the administration of US President Joe Biden, to waive intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines, said Ursula von der Leyen, head of the European Commission Thursday.

The head of the EU executive said the bloc’s vaccination effort was accelerating, with 30 Europeans being vaccinated every second, while more than 200 million doses of vaccine were exported to the rest of the world – as opposed to the limited parts of vaccines by the United States and Great Britain.

“The EU is also ready to discuss any proposals that address the crisis in an effective and pragmatic way,” said von der Leyen in a speech at the European University Institute in Florence.

“Therefore, we are ready to discuss how the US proposal for an intellectual property right exemption for Covid-19 vaccines could help achieve that goal.”

However, Germany on Thursday opposed the US’s call for patent exemption, saying the protection will not hinder production of the injections.

“The US proposal to remove patent protection for Covid-19 vaccines has significant implications for vaccine production as a whole,” said a government spokeswoman. “The limiting factors in vaccine production are manufacturing capabilities and high quality standards, not patents.”

Berlin said the drug companies involved were already working with partners to ramp up manufacturing capacity.

“The protection of intellectual property is a source of innovation and must remain so in the future,” said the spokeswoman.

Germany is home to BioNTech, the company that, together with Pfizer, developed the first Covid-19 vaccine that was approved for use in the West late last year.

Another German company, Curevac, is in the final stages of its clinical trials and is enforcing EU approval for its Covid shots in the coming weeks.

Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio said Italy supported the suspension of patents and noted on its Facebook page that Europe should not miss the opportunity and be brave.

French President Emmanuel Macron said he was “very much in favor” of opening up intellectual property. However, a French government official said lack of manufacturing capacity and upstream components was the problem, not patents.

“I want to remind you that it is the United States that has not exported any dose to other countries and is now talking about lifting the patents,” said the official.

German Health Minister Jens Spahn said earlier Thursday that Germany is behind “the goal of the US president – providing the world with vaccines is the only way out of the pandemic.”

However, the countries that produce vaccines “must also export them to other countries,” Spahn said, pointing to the US’s reluctance to let vaccines leave its shores.

Skeptics say that waiving patents will not boost production

South Africa and India submitted the first vaccine exemption proposal to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in October, with support from many developing countries who say it is a critical step to make vaccines more widely available.

The World Health Organization said in April that of the 700 million vaccines administered worldwide, only 0.2% were in low-income countries.

So far, the EU has worked with a group of countries, many of which are home to major pharmaceutical companies, including Great Britain and Switzerland, that have opposed the exemption.

They claim it would undermine incentives for companies producing vaccines in record time to do so in a future pandemic. They also say that waiving patents would not solve the problem immediately due to lack of sufficient production capacity.

Making vaccines is also complicated, as shown by AstraZeneca’s manufacturing problems, and also requires the transfer of technology, know-how and personnel.

Von der Leyen said the EU has urgently called on all vaccine-producing countries to allow exports and avoid measures that disrupt supply chains.

A Commission spokeswoman said this comment was not directed at any country in particular.

The United States said on Wednesday that it supported the waiver, although trade chief Katherine Tai warned negotiations would take time.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called Biden’s move a “monumental moment”.

South Africa and India have said they will revise their waiver text ahead of the next WTO meetings on the subject later in May and on June 8-9.

New Zealand has also joined the lenders and said it welcomed the US statement. UK Trade Secretary Liz Truss said Britain was working at the WTO to resolve the issue, without mentioning the waiver.

( Jowharwith REUTERS, AFP)

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