26th Sep 2021

EU now 'open' to vaccine waiver, after Biden U-turn

  • In total more than 100 countries back the temporarily waiver of intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines (Photo: UNICEF Ethiopia)

The European Union is ready to discuss the proposal, now supported by the United States, to temporarily waive intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines - after opposing the move during seven months of negotiations at the international level.

"The EU is also ready to discuss any proposals that addresses the crisis in an effective and pragmatic manner," European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said in a speech to the European University Institute in Florence on Thursday (6 May).

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"That's why we are ready to discuss how the US proposal for a waiver on intellectual property protections for Covid-19 vaccines could help achieve that objective," she added.

The call was first initiated by India and South Africa in the World Trade Organization (WTO) in October 2020, and since then, it has steadily gained momentum.

Now more than 100 countries have backed the waiver, together with the World Health Organization (WHO), at least 375 civil society groups, plus former heads of state, Nobel laureates, MEPs, medical experts and trade unions.

In a historic move on Wednesday, the administration of US president Joe Biden announced that it would also support easing patent rules on Covid-19 vaccines, arguing that the extraordinary circumstances caused by the pandemic required extraordinary measures.

"The administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections, but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for Covid-19 vaccines," said US trade representative Katherine Tai in a statement.

Biden 'leadership'

The chief of the WHO Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus welcomed the US decision, describing it as a "monumental moment" and "a powerful example of American leadership to address global health challenges".

"I am not surprised by this announcement. This is what I expected from the administration of president Biden," he said.

When asked by EUobserver about expectations of EU countries supporting the waiver any time soon, the UN health body refused to respond.

Earlier this month, Tedros said that the provisions of the WTO's Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement were meant to use the intellectual property waiver for emergencies, while pointing out that the current level of emergency is "unprecedented".

"If we cannot use all means we have at hand now, including the IP [intellectual property] waiver, when are we going to use the IP waiver?" he told a media conference on Monday.

The WHO revealed last month that one-in-four people in high-income countries have received a coronavirus vaccine, compared with just one-in-over-500 in low-income countries.

Just one veto at WTO

Until now, EU countries, home to many major drugs manufacturers, have opposed the patent waiver - together with the UK, Australia, Switzerland, Japan, Norway, Canada, and Brazil.

They argued that waiving patents would not instantly solve the imbalance in the global distribution of vaccines, since the main problem is related to a lack of sufficient manufacturing capacity.

Instead, they have supported technology transfer and voluntary multilateral agreements between the patent holder (licensor) and the producer (licensee), known as the "third way".

However, according to Nicole Lurie, an expert from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Initiatives, "the challenge is that right now the companies that have got established vaccines are really hesitant to form partnerships, particularly with some developing country manufacturers".

For example, according to a recent analysis, AstraZeneca is the only company that has made agreements with companies in the global south to produce vaccines.

The WTO's 164 states are expected to discuss the waiver proposal next month. But such a decision would require unanimous approval, with any member able to veto it. The US already cautioned that negotiations would take time.

Meanwhile, the EU has urged all vaccine-producing countries to allow exports and to avoid measures that disrupt supply chains. In total, the EU has exported more than 200 million doses.

EU leaders will discuss the waiver proposal during an informal meeting in Porto this weekend.

Reacting to the US announcement, French president Emmanuel Macron said he is "very much in favour" of the waiver. Similarly, Italian foreign affairs minister Luigi Di Maio said his country also supports suspending patents, adding that Europe should not miss the opportunity and be courageous, Reuters reported.

The Dutch trade minister Sigrid Kaag wrote on Twitter that the US decision is a "good sign", while German health minister Jens Spahn said he shared Biden's goal of providing as many people as possible with vaccines.

Meanwhile, the EU Committee of the Regions adopted on Thursday a resolution supporting the temporary waiver, become the first EU institution to set out a position on this issue.

The NGO Doctors Without Borders said the waiver would "increase sufficient and timely access to these lifesaving medical tools as Covid-19 continues to ravage countries across the globe".

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Workers such as United Nurses Association of India are furious that the EU is undermining their best efforts and exacerbating the crisis by continuing to put big-pharma profits ahead of Covid vaccine patent-waivers. Is this what solidarity looks like?

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