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COVID-19 vaccine patents: EU nations divided over lifting intellectual property rights

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The issue of IP rights for vaccines has been under discussion for months
The issue of IP rights for vaccines has been under discussion for months   -   Copyright  Mary Altaffer/AP
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Several EU leaders praised the US call to remove patent protections on COVID-19 vaccines to help poor countries obtain shots. But the proposal faced resistance, notably from Germany.

The EU is “ready to discuss” lifting intellectual property protections on COVID-19 vaccines, Ursula von der Leyen said on Thursday.

More than 100 countries have been pushing for the IP rights on coronavirus vaccines and treatments to be waived in order to speed up production of jabs.

The US on Wednesday said it was backing the plans for what is essentially a patent waiver, amid World Trade Organization (WTO) talks on the issue.

During the State of the Union 2021, an event organised in Florence, European Commission president von der Leyen said the bloc would discuss “any proposal that would tackle the crisis in an effective and pragmatic way”.

“I completely favour this opening up of the intellectual property,” French President Emmanuel Macron said.

However, like many pharmaceutical companies, Macron insisted that a waiver would not solve the problem of access to vaccines. He said manufacturers in places like Africa are not now equipped to make COVID-19 vaccines, so donations of shots from wealthier countries should be given priority instead.

Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio wrote on Facebook that the US announcement was “a very important signal” and that the world needs “free access” to vaccine patents. But Italian Premier Mario Draghi was more circumspect.

'Source of innovation'

Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s office spoke out against it, saying: “The protection of intellectual property is a source of innovation and must remain so in the future.”

A Merkel spokeswoman, speaking on customary condition of anonymity, said Germany is focused instead on how to increase vaccine manufacturers' production capacity.

During WTO talks, the US Trade Representative Katherine Tai said the Biden administration “believes strongly in intellectual property protections, but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for COVID-19 vaccines”.

The temporary waiver on IP rights would allow more manufacturers to produce the vaccines.

Tai cautioned it would take time to reach a required global consensus to waive the protections under WTO rules, and officials said the US decision would not have an immediate effect on the global supply of vaccines.

The US announcement came hours after WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala spoke to a closed-door meeting of ambassadors for richer and poorer countries, who have been arguing over the issue.

The argument, part of a long-running debate about intellectual property protections, centers on lifting patents, copyrights and protections for industrial design and confidential information to help expand the production and deployment of vaccines during supply shortages.

The aim is to suspend the rules for several years, just long enough to beat down the pandemic.

Charles Michel, president of the European Council, tweeted on Wednesday that council leaders will "tackle this topic" during talks in Porto.

He said the EU has been supporting a third way on bringing vaccines to the global community, promoted by the WTO's director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.

Okonjo-Iweala has called for facilitating the transfer of vaccine technology "within the framework of multilateral rules", with pharma companies agreeing licencing deals to allow other manufacturers to produce vaccines and other products.

‘Monumental moment in the fight against COVID-19’

The World Health Organization (WHO) has been a proponent of such a move for some time, and the Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus praised the US’s stance.

“This is a monumental moment in the fight against COVID-19,” he said in a statement.

“The commitment by the President of the United States Joe Biden and Ambassador Katherine Tai, the US Trade Representative, to support the waiver of IP protections on vaccines is a powerful example of American leadership to address global health challenges.”

Saying this is what he expected of the Biden administration, he commended the “historic decision”.

While more than 100 countries support the proposal, opponents argue the waiver will not be the answer.

Many, especially from within the industry, argue the move could hurt future innovation, and say due to the complexities of making vaccines waiving IP rights won’t necessarily speed up production.

Dr Michelle McMurry-Heath, chief executive of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization trade group, said in a statement that the decision will undermine incentives to develop vaccines and treatments for future pandemics.

“Handing needy countries a recipe book without the ingredients, safeguards, and sizable workforce needed will not help people waiting for the vaccine," she said.

Pfizer declined to comment on Biden’s announcement, as did Johnson & Johnson, which developed a one-dose vaccine meant to ease vaccination campaigns in poor and rural areas. Moderna and AstraZeneca didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

The companies have made some efforts to provide vaccine doses to poor countries at prices well below what they’re charging wealthy nations.

The WTO’s General Council took up the issue after South Africa and India first proposed it in October.

WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell said a panel on intellectual property at the trade body was expected to take up the waiver proposal again at a “tentative” meeting later this month, before a formal meeting on June 8-9.

That means any final deal could be weeks away at best.