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23rd May 2022

Vaccine-waiver row refuses to die at EU-AU summit

  • While more than 70 percent of Europeans are fully-vaccinated, the figure for Africans is just 11 percent (Photo: UNICEF Ethiopia)
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African Union countries will seek backing to lift patent protections on Covid-19 vaccines this week but there are few signs that Europeans were prepared to comply ahead of an EU-AU summit in Brussels.

Nearly a year after the creation and approval of vaccines in Europe, heads of state of the African Union are still looking for a patent waiver - even for a limited period - in order to increase their own production capacity.

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Some rich EU countries that are home to major pharmaceutical hubs continue to oppose the move, despite the widespread recognition by EU leaders of a universal right to health.

The African Union has tried to include the patent waiver in the joint conclusions of the summit. But EU countries are not prepared to accept such wording, instead supporting weak language in favour of the "health sovereignty" of Africa.

"The African Union reiterates its support for the TRIPS [Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights] waiver request and urges the European Union to engage constructively towards conclusion of a targeted and time limited waiver which is critical to a WTO response to the Covid-19 Pandemic," the African Union proposed to say in the joint declaration, according to internal EU documents seen by EUobserver.

But the EU has suggested saying instead: "The African Union and the European Union commit to engage constructively towards a comprehensive WTO response on trade and health, which includes commitments on improved transparency, restraint from export restrictions, trade facilitating measures as well as intellectual property."

"The word 'waiver' is problematic and it is something the EU is not prepared to accept," an EU diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told EUobserver.

The EU has argued the patent waiver will not deliver what several of its officials have called a "miracle" solution.

French trade minister Franck Riester, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, said intellectual property rights are crucial to spur innovation and lead investments into research.

"We do not want to call into question a system of intellectual property that allows for innovation and that has made it possible, in particular, to have vaccines very quickly in the case of Covid-19," he told a news conference earlier this week.

Europe's current vaccination rates, however, stand in stark contrast with the situation in Africa.

While more than 70 percent of Europeans are fully-vaccinated, the figure for Africans is just 11 percent - and even that disguises some major country-by-country variations.

Charles Chinedu Okeahalam, a Nigerian economist and businessman, told EUobserver the summit is likely to be "very high on talk, pledges and promises, photoshoot opportunities and posturing for domestic and international audiences" but would fall short of delivering any significant compromise on vaccine access.

The EU-AU summit comes just a few days before the next round of negotiations on the patent waiver at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and some fifteen months after South Africa and India first proposed to lift intellectual property rights of Covid-19 vaccines and medicines.

WTO director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has been in talks with the EU, the US, India, and South Africa for two months seeking to bridge differences.

Those talks have been held in an "extremely difficult atmosphere," according to a source close to the negotiations, who declined to speak on the record.

Civil society organisations, meanwhile, have slammed US pharmaceutical giant Moderna for filing patent applications related to vaccine production in South Africa – a move that could potentially undermine plans to build African vaccine production.

The news comes after the South African company Afrigen announced it had reverse-engineered Moderna's vaccines.

Moderna did not answer EUobserver's request for comments.

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