The leaders of the European Union are to discuss waiving intellectual property protections for Covid-19 vaccines this week, after the United States shifted position on the policy that could allow many poorer countries to produce their own vaccines.
“The EU is also ready to discuss any proposals that address the crisis in an effective and pragmatic manner,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Thursday, despite previously signalling personal opposition to the move.
“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,” the EU executive chief said at a press conference.
There is increasing concern that richer countries in Europe and North America where many jabs are patented and manufactured are racing ahead in vaccinations, leaving behind much of the world population.
The EU, US and other vaccine-producing countries have also been accused of hoarding the vaccines and of being more concerned about protecting profits for the pharmaceutical industry.
On Wednesday, the US came out in favour of suspending patent rights, and indicated it would take an active role in the necessary World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiations to make this happen.
India and South Africa officially proposed the move last year, but met a lukewarm reception from Western nations.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed Washington’s new position on Thursday, saying it “opens the opportunity for vaccine producers to share the knowledge and technology that will allow the effective expansion of locally produced vaccines.”
The change in US policy has won praise from public health advocates and the World Health Organization (WHO), and pushed the issue back up the discussion agenda in Europe.
In its wake, EU leaders are now to discuss the proposal during talks in the Portuguese city of Porto on Friday and Saturday, according to European Council President Charles Michel.
French President Emmanuel Macron wholeheartedly backed the idea on Thursday, and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said his country was open to it.
In the short-term, dropping patent rights won’t necessarily increase supply, pharmaceutical firms argue, since most issues at present relate to global production capacity.
To address immediate needs, all vaccine-producing countries should allow exports of the jabs, von der Leyen said, adding that the EU had shipped more than 200 million vaccine doses.
“We must develop global production capacity with financial support from the EU for developing partners,” Michel wrote on Twitter.
Generally, EU leaders were not averse to the idea, an EU official said on condition of anonymity on Thursday. There was “a broad consensus” to discuss the matter, according to the source.
But while waiving patent rights could increase the global manufacture of Covid-19 vaccines by for example opening production sites also in African countries, this process could take several months, the official said.
For the move to go ahead through the WTO, more than 160 countries would have to agree to international copyright regulations being suspended.
Without the support of pharmaceutical companies, it would also be very difficult to copy the complex recipes of new vaccines.
The industry is up in arms. The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) group said the move would undermine the “global response to the pandemic and compromise safety.”
“This decision will sow confusion between public and private partners, further weaken already strained supply chains and foster the proliferation of counterfeit vaccines,” PhRMA President Stephen J Ubl said in a statement.