- Experts believe that rich countries cannot hope to defeat the virus unless developing countries are given access to universal vaccination
- Vaccine patents restrict access to this access – rich nations say such protection is essential to ensure pharmaceutical companies have the resources to research and innovate
- Developing countries argue that excessive and too long patents prevent cheap access to medicines
- The European Parliament is pressing on the Commission to temporarily exempt intellectual property rights for coronavirus vaccines
- MEP: Europe needs to start sharing its technology, production data and vaccine patents to increase access for all who need it
The European Commission knew it could be a difficult week, as its representatives risked political isolation as the main allies of big pharmaceutical companies – Big Pharma – in the debate on the renouncement of intellectual property on vaccines at the World Trade Organization (WTO) summit in Geneva.
Ultimately, the WTO summit had to be postponed because of Omikron, but that doesn’t mean EU diplomats can breathe a sigh of relief that they are suddenly free from trouble. On the contrary. Proponents of wider access to vaccines immediately used the new variant and the cancellation of the WTO meeting as evidence that rich nations should not hope to defeat the virus unless developing countries have universal vaccination.
The People’s Vaccine, a coalition of more than 50 organizations calling for free access to vaccines and the lifting of intellectual property restrictions, linked the postponement of the WTO meeting this week to the need to allow greater use of medical formulas from big companies.
“It wasn’t inevitable,” the coalition said in a statement released after the meeting was canceled. “Vaccine apartheid, which rich nations and the WTO refuse to address, is ultimately responsible for the decision to postpone vaccine talks.”
Due to Omicron restrictions, many African delegates would not be able to fly to the summit on Lake Geneva, so the meeting was postponed indefinitely.
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Rich versus poor
India and South Africa are leading the campaign for comprehensive IPR exemptions on vaccines, but the EU is the biggest commercial power to oppose exemption, backed by the UK, Switzerland and Canada.
The debate has been going on for a long time: rich countries say patent protection is necessary to ensure that Big Pharma continues to spend money on research and innovation, while developing countries argue that excessive and too long patents prevent cheap access to medicines.
“The advent of the Omikron variant must finally make the European Commission see it: we will not get out of this pandemic if the whole world does not have access to inexpensive vaccines,” said Sara Matthieu, a Green lawyer in the European Parliament. – Europe urgently needs to put people’s health above the profits of pharmaceutical companies and support the waiver of patents now. The postponement of the WTO Summit is no excuse for inaction as new options will continue to emerge.
Gordon Brown, former British Prime Minister and now World Health Organization ambassador for global health financing, struck a similar note in an opinion in the Guardian.
“Our failure to vaccinate people in the developing world will haunt us. We have been warned, and yet we are where we are,” he wrote.
Data from Johns Hopkins University puts South Africa’s vaccination coverage at just 24 percent. of the population, compared with just under 70 percent. in France and Germany. The argument of those campaigning against restrictive patents is not only humane, but also stresses that the global economy is less likely to be slowed down by shocks like Omikron if vaccines become commonplace.
The WTO summit scheduled for this week was widely seen as a decisive test of the institution’s credibility. CEO Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala wanted to reach a compromise on the waiver of coronavirus vaccine patents to show that a stagnant trade organization can continue to act as a vital global force. Last week she called on countries to abandon the all-or-nothing stance and reach an agreement in Geneva.
Although the summit has been postponed, negotiations will continue.
Europe has played a good game in the last few days and has even suggested softening its stance, but in fact nothing has changed in its core position, meaning the Commission will likely face a growing wave of criticism over the Omicron case.
EU Trade Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis wrote in the Financial Times last week that the EU would support a “targeted waiver” on vaccine intellectual property rights, but people informed about the position of Brussels said this only related to the EU’s former position that it would support steps to ease the process of compulsory licensing of intellectual property, which is an existing provision in the WTO under the so-called TRIPS Agreement on Intellectual Property.
Compulsory licensing means that a country can allow a company to produce a drug without the consent of the patent owner, and this usually only happens in a medical emergency. Not only is such a step rare and legally complicated, it is also far from the total exemption that India and South Africa are calling for.
Behind closed doors, the Commission remains more adamant.
Last week, some European countries asked Brussels for more flexibility in Geneva, according to the records of Wednesday’s meeting of EU ambassadors, which was seen by POLITICO. But the Commission insisted on sticking to its position. According to these provisions, a broad exemption from intellectual property rights is unacceptable.
Meanwhile, the European Parliament has increased pressure on the Commission by adopting a resolution supporting a time-limited exemption from fees for intellectual property rights. Kathleen Van Brempt of the center-left group of Socialists and Democrats said: “ Europe must stop blocking the IPR exemption for COVID-19 vaccines and start sharing its mRNA technology, production data and vaccine patents to ensure, increase production and distribution vaccines for all those in need.
All eyes on America
Even if the European Commission suddenly changed its mind and followed the position of the European Parliament, national capitals’ trade ministers would not sign the dismissal, according to several EU diplomats.
EU trade ministers met on Monday to give the Commission the final political guidance for the Geneva summit, and the draft conclusions obtained by POLITICO leave the Commission with no flexibility on the exemption. They state that the pandemic response “should also include strengthening and simplifying the use of the flexible solutions available under the TRIPS Agreement.” This means compulsory licensing. Nothing more.
Much will depend on what the United States does, say EU diplomats.
To date, Washington has not come forward with a vaccine proposal in Geneva, despite open support for an IPR waiver for vaccines earlier this year, which US President Joe Biden reiterated on Friday, saying the new variant shows “the importance of swift action.” in this case”.
The union hopes that Washington, despite public support for the dismissal, will maintain its traditional patent support.
But so far the US side has given no clue as to its strategy of operation in the coming weeks.
“They are holding the cards,” said one of the diplomats. – If they take the side of South Africa and India with some layoff, it may end badly for the EU.
Editing: Michał Broniatowski