Opinion: Europe must fight for its coronavirus vaccines, and share them | Opinion | DW | 26.01.2021
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Opinion

Opinion: Europe must fight for its coronavirus vaccines, and share them

The European Union does not have enough vaccine because manufacturers are not fulfilling their contracts. Sharing the patents could speed up production and solve global problems, says Barbara Wesel.

Box with vials of AstraZeneca vaccine

Pharmaceutical companies are having difficulties supplying the necessary amounts of vaccine

As recently as the beginning of the year, we had hopes that widespread vaccination campaigns in 2021 could quickly lift the gloom of the coronavirus restrictions. But confidence is crumbling as bureaucracy and organizational mistakes have caused Europe to miss out on a quick start for mass vaccination. With only 2% of the population currently vaccinated, the EU lags far behind the US, Israel and the UK.

Now that vaccination campaigns are finally underway, there is a shortage of vaccine. Europe must now take up the fight with the pharmaceutical industry.

Barbara Wesel

Barbara Wesel is a DW correspondent in Brussels

Basically, the EU got it right. Last summer, it purchased in advance — before development had even been completed — the rights to three times the amount of vaccine needed for all EU citizens.

The EU bet on the eight most likely candidates for success at the time, including the winners of the research race: BioNTech-Pfizer, Oxford-AstraZeneca and Moderna.

Companies promised too much

The biggest problem remained unresolved, however — and that was which pharmaceutical manufacturers would be able to produce hundreds of millions of doses of the new vaccines in the shortest possible time. So the European Commission relied on the companies' promises. Now, the firms are admitting that their production facilities are too small, that suppliers are not keeping up or that there are other delays.

The production of the new vaccines is complex. The production processes must be approved, and the companies involved are stretched to the limit. AstraZeneca, for instance, produces the vaccine developed at Oxford University, but has little experience in this field. There is no pharmaceutical giant at all behind the Moderna preparation, developed in a research institute in Boston. Several pharmaceutical service providers in Europe are supposed to jointly produce that vaccine, which does not necessarily guarantee smooth and rapid mass production.

Scientists developed the COVID-19 vaccines much more quickly than even optimists expected. Now, however, widespread vaccination is failing because the companies involved cannot deliver enough. They were happy to sign the lucrative contracts with the EU. But is Europe powerless if the companies fail to deliver the promised quantities?

Share the patents!

There is a way out of the dilemma, and that is to share the patents. What may sound like brute socialism is an adequate remedy in a global health crisis. A Finnish MEP argued in the European Parliament that three months' delay in the vaccination campaign meant hundreds of thousands of additional deaths. What else is there to say?

Watch video 01:56

EU ramps up pressure on AstraZeneca

Ideally, the companies should agree to share the blueprint of their vaccines. So far, however, no corporation has released the rights. It is not about expropriating intellectual property. Of course, the owners of the patents should be paid compensation — minus, however, the huge sums that governments invested in the development of these vaccines. The public sector has spent billions to support research. What were the conditions? And what rights do the governments involved have?

At this point, politicians have plenty of good reasons to stand up to the pharmaceutical companies and, if necessary, enforce the transfer of technologies. The pandemic is far from under control and economic damage is on the rise, as is the fallout for society and people's health. In the end, there is only one argument for the European Commission and the European governments: We must protect the lives of our citizens!

No advantage to European self-interest

There is another good reason to quickly share vaccine rights: The World Health Organization has long urged doing so in order to supply poorer countrieswith the vaccine. After all, what good is it for Europe if everyone here is protected, but new mutations keep emerging from other parts of the world?

Last year, European leaders pledged to treat the fight against COVID-19 as a global task. But that was lip service. It is high time to back up words with action. The widespread production of vaccines is a task that can only be tackled together. We must be quick because we have absolutely no time to lose — the number of graves is rising inexorably. 

This article has been adapted from German.