Coronavirus: Vaccines

EU ready to discuss proposal on waiving patent rights for jab

PORTO • The European Union is sceptical about the usefulness of waiving patent rights to Covid-19 vaccines as a way to fight the pandemic, but is ready to discuss a concrete proposal, European Council president Charles Michel has said.

Speaking to reporters yesterday before the second day of an EU summit in the Portuguese city of Porto, Mr Michel said the way to fight the pandemic now was to quickly make more shots and lift export curbs on them in countries like the United States and Britain that make vaccines but do not sell them to others.

"In Europe, we took the decision to make exports possible and we encourage all partners to facilitate the exports of doses," he said after discussions with leaders of the 27-nation bloc on Friday evening.

India and South Africa called last year for the lifting of patent rights to vaccines as a way of boosting manufacturing and ensuring the world is supplied.

Debate around the issue erupted anew last Wednesday when US President Joe Biden supported the idea, provided it was done through the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

The time taken to get a WTO agreement and to build expanded vaccine-making capacity would mean that such a waiver would not provide a quick fix, sceptics say.

Mr Michel said: "On intellectual property - we don't think that in the short term that it is a magic bullet, but we are ready to engage on this topic as soon as a concrete proposal would be put on the table."

Officials said that during Friday's summit talks, Germany - home to BioNTech which holds a patent on the highly effective mRNA vaccine together with Pfizer - argued strongly against the idea of waiving patent rights.

Portugal, Estonia, Belgium and Ireland were also sceptical but Greece backed the waiver idea, as did Italy, which was in favour of time-limited and geographically targeted measures.

EU officials say that Europe is one of the biggest exporters of coronavirus vaccines in the world, with some 200 million doses shipped out to 90 countries - the same number of shots that Europe has distributed among its own citizens.

French President Emmanuel Macron, speaking to reporters before yesterday's talks, said with Covid-19 vaccines, the world could try to emulate what was done years ago with medicines against HIV, when such medicines became too expensive for poor nations.

"We need to start a debate today about doing exactly as we did at the time of HIV; where the intellectual property (IP) was a source of blockage, it should be possible to lift it, but in a limited way," Mr Macron said.

He stressed that any action should not financially punish the companies that came up with the vaccine technology.

The EU's executive arm, the European Commission, called on Friday on the US and other major vaccine producers to export what they make.

European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen told a news conference that discussions on the waiver would not produce a single dose of Covid-19 vaccine in the short to medium term.

Vaccine manufacturers in the EU have exported about half of the shots they have produced, some 200 million in total, Dr von der Leyen as she urged the US to match that effort.

"We invite all those who engage in the debate for a waiver for IP rights also to join us to commit to be willing to export a large share of what is being produced in that region," she added.

REUTERS, BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 09, 2021, with the headline 'EU ready to discuss proposal on waiving patent rights for jab'. Subscribe