The European Union on Thursday backed a US proposal to discuss waiving patent protections for COVID-19 vaccines, but drugmakers and some other governments opposed the idea, saying it would not solve global inoculation shortages. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen expressed willingness to explore a waiver after President Biden on Wednesday promoted the plan, reversing the US position.
On Thursday, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said: “The main thing is, we have to speed this up.
“None of us are going to be fully safe until … we get as many people vaccinated as possible.”
A patent waiver is “one possible means of increasing manufacture and access to vaccines,” he said, as the White House denied a split among officials over the waiver idea.
Biden’s administration endorsed negotiations at the World Trade Organisation to gain global agreement.
WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala told member states that she “warmly welcomed” the US move.
She said: “We need to respond urgently to COVID-19 because the world is watching and people are dying.”
World Health Organization (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus reached for capital letters in a tweet calling Biden’s move a “monumental moment in the fight against COVID-19”, and said it reflected “the wisdom and moral leadership of the United States.”
Despite that enthusiasm, drugmakers, who stand to lose revenue if they are stripped of patent rights to COVID-19 vaccines, and other critics found flaws in the proposal.
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Germany, the EU’s biggest economic power and home to a large pharmaceutical sector, rejected the idea, saying vaccine shortages were due to limited production capacity and quality standards rather than patent protection issues.
Health Minister Jens Spahn said he shared Biden’s goal of providing the whole world with vaccines.
But a spokeswoman for Angela Merkel’s government said in a statement that “the protection of intellectual property is a source of innovation and must remain so in the future.”
Moreover, a waiver would take months to negotiate and require unanimous agreement among the 164 countries in the WTO.
Drug companies urged rich countries instead to share vaccines more generously with the developing world.
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On the other hand, French President Emmanuel Macron said he was “very much in favour” of opening up intellectual property.
However, a French government official said vaccine shortages was the result of a lack of production capacity and ingredients, not of patents.
The official said: “I would remind you that it is the United States that has not exported a single dose to other countries, and is now talking about lifting the patents.”
Italy’s Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio also backed the US move, saying “there must be a free access to patents on anti-COVID vaccines.”
The Spanish government on Thursday also said it approved the US President’s proposal as a “way forward” but warned it would not be enough to guarantee supplies to developing countries.
Approving such a suspension of intellectual property rights would take time and, in the meantime, pharmaceutical companies should be flexible in granting voluntary licences, it said in a working paper entitled Vaccines for All.
The paper, which Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez is due to present on Friday at a European Union summit in Porto, calls for the removal of trade barriers and logistical hurdles to reduce a global shortfall in vaccine production.
It reads: “Unequal access to vaccines between developed and developing countries is not only at the core of a feeling of injustice, but also poses a health risk for the world.”
Spain also proposed a platform to monitor global vaccine manufacturing sites and match idle production capacity with demand.
Taking advantage of a slowdown in global air transport, the paper suggests airlines should work with international organisations to play a greater role in vaccine distribution.
The United States has shipped a few million vaccine doses it was not using to Mexico and Canada on loan.
South Africa and India made the initial waiver proposal at the WTO in October, gathering support from many developing countries, which say it will make vaccines more widely available.
Until now, the European Union has been aligned with a group of countries, including Britain and Switzerland – home to large pharmaceutical companies – that have opposed the waiver.