Biden’s support for Covid-19 vaccine patent waivers faces uphill effort in Europe

People queue up to receive a dose of a Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine at a vaccination centre in Mumbai, India. PHOTO: AFP

BERLIN (NYTIMES) - President Joe Biden's about-face on pushing pharmaceutical companies to share vaccine patents, in an attempt to help poorer countries, faces a considerable challenge in Europe.

Under growing pressure, the European Union - whose approval would be needed - said on Thursday (May 6) it would consider the Biden administration's decision to reverse course and support a waiver of patents for Covid-19 vaccines as many poor and middle-income nations struggle to secure lifesaving doses.

But in a speech on Thursday, the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, did not endorse the plan, raising questions about whether the bloc would agree to waive patents, something she has said previously she was staunchly against.

That position was underscored by a statement from Germany, the bloc's de facto leader, later in the day, that the US proposal could trigger "severe implications" for the production of vaccines.

"The limiting factor in vaccine manufacturing is production capacity and high quality standards, not patents," a spokeswoman for Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany said in the statement.

In her speech, von der Leyen, said that the European Union was "ready to discuss any proposals that address the crisis in an effective and pragmatic manner."

But she also suggested that the focus should instead be on getting more vaccines to countries that need them by following the bloc's example in permitting the ample export of doses.

The United States has so far baulked at that approach, keeping most doses produced domestically for use at home.

"We call upon all vaccine-producing countries to allow export and to avoid measures that disrupt the supply chains," von der Leyen said.

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The two European statements emphasised the challenges of winning critical EU support for securing the patent waivers.

Many experts feel the waivers are needed to step up the manufacturing of vaccines and get them to poorer parts of the world, where inoculations have far lagged those of richer countries.

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The European Union is a significant force within the World Trade Organisation, where unanimous approval by member countries would be required for any proposal to waive patents.

Pharmaceutical companies around the world have also opposed patent waivers, which could cut into profits after large investments on developing vaccines.

They say that waiving patents could be dangerous for the public, raising the risks of a wave of counterfeit doses.

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