European Union president Ursula von der Leyen has said the 27-nation bloc is ready to talk about a US proposal to share the technology behind Covid-19 vaccines to help speed the end of the pandemic.
Without firmly committing to it, she said “we are ready to discuss how the US proposal for waiver on intellectual property protection for Covid vaccines could help”.
In a video address, she added: “In the short run, however, we call upon all vaccine-producing countries to allow exports and to avoid measures that disrupt supply chains.”
That echoed the position of the global pharmaceutical industry, which insists a faster solution would be for rich countries that have vaccine stockpiles to start sharing them with poorer ones.
The industry insists that production of coronavirus vaccines is complicated and cannot be ramped up by easing intellectual property protections.
Instead, it insists that reducing bottlenecks in supply chains and a scarcity of ingredients that go into vaccines are the more pressing issues for now.
“A waiver is the simple but the wrong answer to what is a complex problem,” said the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA).
“Waiving patents of Covid-19 vaccines will not increase production nor provide practical solutions needed to battle this global health crisis.”
The industry also says an IP waiver will do more harm than good in the long run by reducing the incentives that push innovators to make tremendous leaps, as they did with the vaccines that have been churned out in a blistering, unprecedented speed to help fight Covid-19.
Leftwing politicians in the UK – including Jeremy Corbyn – have called for a ‘People’s Vaccine’, hitting out at ‘vaccine nationalism’ and wealthy nations hoarding supplies as early as November 2020.
Writing on Facebook, the ex-Labour leader said: “A vaccine should not become a privatised commodity used for corporate profiteering. Instead it should be a global public good and shared with the world.”
Richard Burgon, the head of the Socialist Campaign Group of leftwing Labour MPs in Parliament, echoed Corbyn’s calls in March, tweeting: “The only thing stopping a massive increase in Covid vaccine production is that the patents are controlled by a few pharmaceutical giants. Are we going to let that risk the deaths of many more people worldwide? We need a People’s Vaccine.”
The only thing stopping a massive increase in Covid vaccine production is that the patents are controlled by a few pharmaceutical giants.— Richard Burgon MP (@RichardBurgon) March 27, 2021
Are we going to let that risk the deaths of many more people worldwide?
We need a People’s Vaccine. My new article👇https://t.co/yM3rKXH3EB
President Joe Biden’s administration is throwing its support behind efforts to waive intellectual property protections for vaccines
US trade representative Katherine Tai announced the US government’s position in a statement, amid World Trade Organisation talks over easing global trade rules to enable more countries to produce more of the life-saving jabs.
“The administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections, but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for Covid -19 vaccines,” Ms Tai said in a statement.
She warned it would take time to reach the required global “consensus” to waive the protections under WTO rules, and US officials said it would not have an immediate effect on the global supply of jabs.
In a tweet, the director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, John N Nkengasong, said the organisation welcomed the waiver and called the decision “leadership in action”.
He added: “History will remember this decision as a great act of humanity!”
Ms Tai’s announcement came hours after WTO director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala spoke to a closed-door meeting of ambassadors from developing and developed countries that have been wrangling over the issue, but agree on the need for wider access to Covid-19 treatments.
The WTO’s General Council took up the issue of a temporary waiver for intellectual property protections on Covid-19 vaccines and other tools, which South Africa and India first proposed in October. The idea has gained support among some progressive legislators in the West.
More than 100 countries have backed the proposal, and a group of 110 members of US Congress — all fellow Democrats of Mr Biden — sent him a letter last month calling on him to support the waiver.
Doctors Without Borders, an advocacy group also known as Medecins Sans Frontieres that sends health workers to countries in need, said many low-income countries where it operates have only received 0.3% of the global supply of coronavirus vaccines.
“MSF applauds the US government’s bold decision to support the waiving of intellectual property on Covid-19 vaccines during this time of unprecedented global need,” said Avril Benoît, executive director of MSF-USA.
She said any waiver should apply not just to vaccines, but other medical tools for Covid-19, including treatments for infected people and testing systems.
Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron joined the Biden administration in saying that he backs the sharing of the valuable technology behind Covid-19 vaccines. But Mr Macron also insisted that the immediate priority for wealthier countries should be first donating more doses to poorer countries.
Speaking on a visit to a vaccine centre, the French leader said he “completely” supports opening up intellectual property protections for Covid-19 vaccines. Mr Macron said that “evidently, we must turn this vaccine into a global public good”.
But he also argued that even if patents are waived, pharmaceutical companies in places such as Africa are not currently equipped to make Covid-19 vaccines and that donations of doses should be prioritised instead.