Emmanuel Macron also supports US-backed proposal described as a game-changer by WHO.
Covid vaccines: what is patent waiving and will it solve the global shortage?
The head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has said the bloc is “ready to discuss” a US-backed proposal for a waiver on the patents for Covid-19 vaccines and the French president, Emmanuel Macron, said he was “absolutely in favour” of the plan as pressure built for a move that could boost their production and distribution around the world.
Pharmaceutical companies reacted with anger, and some countries with private astonishment, at the Joe Biden administration’s decision on Wednesday to back the temporary suspension of vaccine patent rights. One diplomat accused the US of grandstanding and coming up with crowd-pleasing simplistic solutions to long-term problems.
Von der Leyen said the EU’s vaccination effort was accelerating, with 30 Europeans vaccinated each second while it was also exporting more than 200m doses, but it was “also ready to discuss any proposals that address the crisis in an effective and pragmatic manner … That’s why we are ready to discuss how the US proposal for a waiver on intellectual property protections for Covid-19 vaccines could help achieve that objective.”
Macron’s support for the US move marked a shift for France, which had previously argued that a patent waiver would discourage innovation. The German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, said Berlin too was open to discussion.
The head of the panel reviewing the World Health’s Organization handling of the pandemic, Helen Clark, the former New Zealand prime minister, earlier called on countries that have obstructed the temporary suspension of intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines, such as the UK, Switzerland and EU states, to follow the US lead and back the initiative.
She described the Biden administration’s announcement as a game-changer and said that pharmaceutical companies that had received billions in public money now needed to spread knowledge to scale up vaccine production.
“When the US moves it is such a powerful signal,” Clark told the BBC. “One would expect the UK, the EU and Switzerland and others that have been obstructing the discussion on the waiver need to say: ‘Yes, we are prepared to negotiate’.”
Biden’s top trade adviser, Katherine Tai, said on Wednesday that while the US believed strongly in intellectual property protections, it would open negotiations at the World Trade Organization to relax the rules.
“This is a global health crisis and the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures,” Tai said.
But the US now needs to persuade other countries of the wisdom of its course, and has admitted that negotiations at the WTO and WHO will take time.
Clark said pharmaceutical companies, whose shares took a hit from the US announcement, needed to recognise vaccines are a public good, and urged them to cooperate or be prepared for “heavy-handed” treatment.
She said the WHO and WTO now needed urgently to convene the countries that have funded the research and the pharmaceutical countries in order to forge an agreement on speedy voluntary licensing and knowledge tech transfer.
The Gavi vaccine alliance welcomed Biden’s support for waiving intellectual property (IP) rights and also urged Washington to help manufacturers transfer knowhow to boost global production.
The Geneva-based group, which co-leads the Covax dose-sharing programme with the WHO, faces supply constraints after India suspended vaccine exports over its epidemic.
Vaccine campaigners have praised the decision as “seismic” and “heroic”, a potential precedent for waiving intellectual property (IP) to address health crises in the future. But they have also made clear that, alone, it is not going to address the global shortage of Covid vaccines.
For one thing, the WTO has to actually adopt the waiver. The trade body usually operates by consensus, and key economies such as the UK, Canada and the EU continue to support upholding vaccine patents. The US turnaround may persuade these countries to compromise on the issue and strike some kind of agreement that is an improvement on the current situation, but does not entirely waive IP rights on vaccines.