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US President Joe Biden’s U-turn in support of a patent waiver for coronavirus vaccines has pushed the EU and other wealthy nations opposed to the proposal into the background.
The timing is particularly noteworthy in Europe as it prepares to hold a summit on Saturday with India, a country hit by the pandemic and calling on the rest of the world to temporarily lift intellectual property protection for COVID-19 vaccines .
For its proponents, the proposal would allow more vaccine-deficient countries to produce much-needed COVID-19 recordings. But for its critics – including the EU and, by late Wednesday, the US – the measure would not bring immediate relief and is insufficient for the present moment.
The US decision to drop its objections was recorded as a seismic shift in Europe. EU and UK officials tried Thursday morning to respond and articulate whether they too would change their position. And within the EU, cracks formed in the bloc’s solidarity with the proposal, and Italian officials expressed support for the patent waiver.
In Thursday morning’s remarks, EU and UK leaders tried to strike a balance. They emphasized an ongoing commitment to existing vaccine distribution mechanisms, but also signaled openness to negotiations on the issue of intellectual property. In separate comments on Thursday morning, both the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and the British Trade Minister, Liz Truss, said they were ready to hold talks on the US’s new position.
“The European Union is also ready to discuss any proposal that addresses the crisis effectively and pragmatically,” said von der Leyen during a speech on the state of the Union at the European University Institute. “And so we stand ready to discuss how the US proposal to remove intellectual property protection for COVID vaccines could help achieve that goal.”
Likewise Truss tweeted that Britain is working with the World Trade Organization “to solve this problem”.
“We are in talks with the US and others to improve the production and supply of COVID-19 vaccines,” she said.
French President Emmanuel Macron said Thursday it was “favorable to the opening of intellectual property”, provided that it goes hand in hand with the necessary technology transfer to lower-income countries as well as more global “solidarity” in vaccine donation.
India and South Africa submitted the waiver proposal to the WTO eight months ago. But the idea went nowhere for months as it encountered strong opposition from the EU, Switzerland, Norway and Japan, not to mention the pharmaceutical companies themselves and of course the US
It remains to be seen whether the EU and others will give in after the US change position. Von der Leyen said on Thursday in particular: “In the short term, we are calling on all vaccine-producing countries to allow exports and avoid measures that disrupt supply chains.”
During a Thursday morning briefing with reporters, an EU official expressed caution about the patent waiver proposal.
“The change is more of the US position,” the official said, adding that the EU is “open to share vaccines, and also.” [to] Making vaccines for the world. ”
The EU and other countries are currently distributing vaccines to low and middle income countries through an international mechanism called COVAX. However, the system was faced with delays and was not yet delivering the desired amount of cans.
Still, the EU official stressed that the temporary abolition of vaccination patents would not immediately address the shortage of shots in some countries, as building production capacities and organizing supply chains could take up to a year. The EU instead supported efforts to ship more vaccines to other countries through existing production facilities, the official noted.
Following the US announcement, the message from MPs, civil society groups and global health care advocates who supported the renunciation was clear: The EU should not be on the wrong side of history.
“Now that the US has come on board, the EU cannot lag behind,” said Bernd Lange, the socialist chairman of the European Parliament’s trade committee.
Across parliament, a large part of the center-left and Green MPs agreed with Lange’s assessment and expressed their full support for the US decision.
The dominoes have already started to fall.
After New Zealand had previously said that the proposal for an exemption was “very broad”, New Zealand supported the US move. In a statement, Secretary of Commerce Damien O’Connor said: “New Zealand supports the removal of IP protection for vaccines as an important part of our collective effort to address the human disaster of the pandemic.”
There were also signs of support within the EU.
Italian officials backed the US after their announcement, with both foreign and health ministers showing their support. “Biden’s breakthrough in free access for everyone to vaccine patents is an important step forward,” Health Minister Roberto Speranza wrote on Facebook. “Europe must also make its contribution.”
The Italian comments echoed the statements made by the Belgian government at the end of April, as a top official specified Belgium supported the exchange of knowledge about vaccine production, “if only for the poorer countries so that they can produce themselves”. However, not everyone is convinced that the spokesman for the German CDU / CSU in the European Parliament is against the waiver of patents.
One criticism of the original proposal at the WTO was that its mandate was too broad. A diplomat admitted late Wednesday that the change in position in the US is undoubtedly putting pressure on countries opposed to the waiver to support a proposal that is much more limited.
The major caveat of the new US position, that it only supports the elimination of vaccines, has not been overlooked by diplomats. One said it would “take time and a lot of hard work” to agree to a revised exemption that only focuses on COVID-19 vaccines. In fact, they suggested that it could take until the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference – which doesn’t start until November 30th – to reach an agreement.
Marta Bengoa, professor of economics at the City University of New York and executive vice president of the International Trade & Finance Association, said the US stance was “primarily a symbolic move.”
She said this depends in large part on how the drug companies behave – and they are the ones whose decisions really matter to what happens on the ground as we not only know their patents but also their manufacturing. Need know-how. “
So far, the response from the pharmaceutical industry, which is emphatically opposed to the waiver, has been predictably negative.
The International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA) said, “Waiving patents for COVID-19 vaccines will neither increase production nor provide practical solutions necessary to combat this global health crisis.”
Speaking on BBC radio’s Today program Thursday morning, IFPMA Director General Thomas Cueni blamed rich countries and described their “disappointing reluctance” to share doses with poorer nations early on.
“This is not big pharma compared to developing countries or generic drug companies,” he added. “Manufacturers in developing countries actually agree – technology transfer cannot be enforced.”
Following Cueni, the director general of the European Federation of the Pharmaceutical Industry and Associations (EFPIA), Nathalie Moll, warned in a statement on Thursday that a patent waiver “opens the door for counterfeit vaccines that enter the supply chain worldwide”.
She added, “Capacity expansion is only possible through voluntary, collaborative partnerships between the innovators behind each vaccine and experienced manufacturing partners.”
This echoes the message of several lawyers who said that an IP waiver alone would not be enough to share the full recipe of complicated technologies and processes required to make vaccines. This requires a number of details of the underlying trade secrets and other forms of intellectual property, such as the construction of some of the materials that contain the active ingredient that contains the vaccine.
Without these kinds of more detailed details, these experts felt that there was a risk that either a less safe or a less effective method of making vaccines was used. In addition, a TRIPS waiver would not force companies to hand over IP themselves, and governments would have to create or improve domestic IP waivers in order to access a company’s expertise.
However, several pharmaceutical companies have expressed an interest in partnering with vaccine developers and have either been turned down or not yet accepted. Teva in Israel, Incepta in Bangladesh, Biolyse in Canada and Bavarian Nordic in Denmark have all stated that they want to help make pods that are on the market. So far, no one has received the okay from a vaccine manufacturer.
The EU’s stance on the US concession is meanwhile a role reversal for the two at the WTO.
In 2015, the EU – under Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström – expressed its support for an indefinite exemption from WTO IP rules on medicines for the least developed countries. This was not the case for the US, whose blocking of an indefinite extension of the exemption currently granted to the least developed countries has resulted in countries having to renew the exemption repeatedly.
Hans von der Burchard, Maïa de la Baume, Helen Collis, Lili Bayer, Giorgio Leali, Anna Isaac, Rym Momtaz and Jakob Hanke Vela contributed to the reporting.
This story has been updated.
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