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COVID vaccine patent waivers divide EU leaders

May 7, 2021

Increased production and exports of vaccines are more urgent than rushing ahead with a US proposal to lift patent protections on coronavirus vaccines, leading European figures have said.

Workers at a BioNTech production facility in Marburg, Germany
Though some argue that patents restrict vaccine access, Germany says production capacity is the real problemImage: Kai Pfaffenbach/REUTERS

European leaders discussed a US proposal for a waiver on intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines at an informal EU summit in Portugal on Friday.

Though Germany came out strongly against the idea, others in the European Union (EU), such as France, Italy and Poland initially signalled support. 

What European leaders say about vaccine patent waivers

Still, French President Emmanuel Macron, said the most pressing obstacle to vaccine programs was actually distribution.

"What is the problem right now? It isn't really intellectual property protection. Can we really entrust laboratories that don't know how to produce [these vaccines] with this intellectual property and expect them to be producing tomorrow?" Macron said.

Macron's words underscored comments made earlier on Friday by German Health Minister Jens Spahn, who said: "The main issue is not the question of patents. The main issue is the question of production capacity," noting that more complex vaccines like the mRNA jabs produced by BioNTech-Pfizer "can't simply be produced anywhere at any factory awarded a license."

Portuguese Foreign Minister Augusto Santos Silva told DW: "We must first enlarge capacity of production of vaccines and then export them."

He pointed out that Europe led the way in donating vaccines. "We are trying to influence all our partners and allies in our effort of donating vaccines," he said.

Almost half the vaccines produced in the EU had been exported, according to Macron.

Speaking to reporters, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen offered a strong rebuke of the US proposal, saying patent waivers would "not bring a single dose of vaccine in the
short and medium term." Instead, she urged the US and other vaccine-producing countries to follow the EU's lead and export more of what they make.

Von der Leyen said increased production, the removal of export barriers and the sharing of existing doses would provide a more timely solution than a debate over intellectual property rights.

What does the World Trade Organization have to do with vaccines?

Although South Africa and India originally brought the case for vaccine waivers to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in October of last year, it was this week's surprising announcement of support for the move by US President Joe Biden that finally shook things up.

The WTO is key in this instance as it is the ultimate authority on intellectual property rights and international trade — still, unanimous consent would be needed for the measure to pass.

US Trade Representative Katherine Tai said she would argue President Biden's position at the organization immediately following his announcement Wednesday.

What's the difference between vaccine patents and licenses?

The pharmaceutical industry, which has strongly opposed an outright patent waiver, favors a system of licensing that it says is already being implemented on an unprecedented scale. It points to AstraZeneca's deal with the world's largest vaccine maker, India's Serum Institute, and Johnson & Johnson teaming up with South Africa's Aspen Pharmacare to produce its vaccine.

A licensing agreement is mostly voluntary and involves a vaccine developer sharing not just patents but the technology and complete know-how with a manufacturer. If required, governments can force developers to share their licenses.

A patent waiver, on the other hand, forces a vaccine developer to share the recipe of its vaccine. A temporary IP relief by the WTO would mean that any company looking to manufacture COVID-19 vaccines would be free to do so without having to pay royalties to vaccine developers and without worrying about being sued for patent infringement.

Ashutosh Pandey contributed to this report

js/rt (AP, AFP, Reuters)

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