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India's push for vaccine patent waiver hits EU roadblock

Murali Krishnan New Delhi | Barbara Wesel Brussels
May 17, 2021

The European Union continues to hold back on India and South Africa's proposal for a patent waiver on coronavirus vaccines to boost global production.

India has so far fully vaccinated just over 40.4 million people, or 2.9% of its population
India's vaccination drive is stuttering due to dire shortages of dosesImage: NIHARIKA KULKARNI/dpa/picture alliance

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a forceful plea to EU leaders on May 8 to back a proposal for temporary waiver of intellectual property rights on COVID vaccines and medicines worldwide put forward by India and South Africa.

The waiver was necessary to boost efforts to combat the pandemic by scaling up vaccine production and ensuring equitable access, Modi said.

"The US has also supported the proposal a couple of days ago," Modi told EU leaders at a virtual summit. "The EU's support at WTO for this waiver will ensure that we can scale up the vaccine production for equitable and global access and save lives."

The recent move by US President Joe Biden to support a patent waiver for coronavirus vaccines has also piled pressure on the European Union.

"I think the EU should consider a waiver. The world is facing a truly international calamity and it should realize that no single country can be safe until all are safe," Gautam Menon, a professor of physics and biology at Ashoka University, told DW.

Reluctance to waive COVID vaccine patents

EU leaders have expressed doubts that waiving intellectual property rights is the way forward.

Reactions from some of the leaders gave a sense that a temporary waiver was unlikely to happen soon. The 27-member bloc is now the most influential body that is challenging the proposal at the World Trade Organization (WTO).

"I made it clear that I do not believe that giving away patents is the solution to make vaccines available to more people," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said.

"If a patent is given away and the quality is no longer controlled, I see more risk than chance," she added.

French president Emmanuel Macron echoed the concerns of the German government and criticized the lack of vaccine exports coming from countries such as the US and the UK.

"The current issue is not really about intellectual property. Can you give intellectual property to laboratories that do not know how to produce and will not produce tomorrow?" Macron said recently.

Other EU member states such as Italy and Spain have reacted more positively to the US government's initiative to not wait for the WTO to arrive at a consensus-based decision. 

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez proposed incentives for pharma companies to enter into voluntary licensing agreements and to pool knowledge using existing WTO platforms.

Sanchez demanded that full use be made of existing manufacturing capacities and trade obstacles be removed for ensuring the functioning of supply chains.

"Finally, transportation, distribution and delivery of vaccines should be accelerated," Sanchez said.

EU ready for discussions

At the post-summit media conference in Portugal, the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, reiterated that the EU was ready for discussions on the patent waiver issue while insisting that the measure needed to be part of a more extensive discussion.

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"The point that I want to emphasize is that we are willing to go into the discussion, but we need a 360-degree view on it and not shy away from other topics," von der Leyen said.

She said questions that would need to be addressed covered production capacity, licensing and vaccine exports, in addition to the IP waiver.

A recent meeting of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations (IFPMA) emphasized that the solution could only lie in the cooperation of experienced vaccine manufacturers.

"Technology transfers are a matter of trust — trust between the partners but also patent trust," said Thomas Cueni, the director-general of IFPMA. "Seventy percent of vaccine manufacturing is about quality control and quality assurance."

India's inoculation drive stuttering amid vaccine shortages

India's appeal to the EU comes at a time when the South Asian country is struggling to contain a calamitous second wave of coronavirus infections.

For months, nowhere in the world has been hit harder than India by the pandemic, as a new variant of the virus fueled a surge in infections that has risen to more than 400,000 daily.

But case numbers have been declining since last week, with the Health Ministry recording 281,386 over the past 24 hours, marking the first time since April 21 that the official number of daily new cases dropped below 300,000.

The daily death count stood at 4,106.

But experts say the numbers could be far higher, pointing to unreliable official data and the lack of testing in rural areas where the virus is spreading fast.

Meanwhile, the nation's vaccination drive is stuttering because of a dire shortages of doses.

Even though India is the world's largest vaccine-producing nation, only 141.6 million people, or roughly 10% of the population of 1.35 billion, have received at least one vaccine dose according to Health Ministry data.

The country has fully vaccinated just over 40.4 million people, or 2.9% of its population.

The average vaccination rate over seven days fell to 1.7 million on Sunday, from 1.8 million a week ago.

'It's poor planning'

Against this backdrop, the Indian government and vaccine makers have been puling out all the stops to increase production capacity to meet the enormous demand.

Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said India's supply of vaccine doses should rise to 516 million by July, and more than 2 billion between August to December, boosted by domestic production and imports.

Shahid Jameel, a renowned virologist, blamed the government for not anticipating such a crisis. 

"Intellectual property never stood in the way of vaccines for India. Early on, Indian companies signed licensing agreements for five vaccines developed in the global West," Jameel told DW.

"One of those — the AstraZeneca shot — has so far catered to 90% of India's vaccine needs. It's poor planning, and not intellectual property, that is the issue," he said.

Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11