EU leaders confront US over vaccine patent waiver demands

EU leaders have confronted the Biden administration over its calls for Covid-19 vaccine patent waivers and urged the US to export jabs directly if it wants to help poor countries in need.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said after a two-day EU leaders’ summit in Porto, Portugal, that suspending intellectual property rights was no solution to supply shortages and called for a focus on ramping up production instead.

France’s President Emmanuel Macron and top EU officials echoed the German premier’s rhetoric as the union scrambled to respond to this week’s surprise US move. Both powers are attempting to fend off accusations they are hoarding vaccines as much of the world sees few or no shipments.

“I don’t think waiving patents is the solution to supply the vaccine to more people,” Merkel told reporters after the summit concluded on Saturday. “I think that we need the creativity and innovation of the companies — and for that we need patent protection.”

The chancellor called for a sharp rise in licensing deals to allow jabs to be made in countries around the world. She added that — with a large part of the US population now vaccinated — it might be time for Washington to increase the international flow of both jab ingredients and finished products. “Europe has always exported a large part of European production to the rest of the world — and that should be the norm,” she said.

Charles Michel, president of the European Council, said earlier on Saturday that a vaccine patent waiver would not be a “magic bullet” for poorer countries but the bloc was willing to discuss “concrete” US proposals on intellectual property rights for vaccines.

Macron said the debate over patents was valid but other measures would help producing more vaccines in the short term.

“I call very clearly on the US to end export bans not only on vaccines, but on ingredients of those vaccines,” he said. Macron’s position that “it should be possible to lift [intellectual property protection] but in a limited way” won wide support among fellow leaders in Porto.

The EU has exported approximately 200m vaccine doses so far, a similar number to those delivered to its own citizens, according to the European Commission. By contrast, few vaccine shots have left the US.

EU leaders also held virtual talks with India’s prime minister Narendra Modi on Saturday, although patent waivers were not mentioned in the official written conclusions. India, along with South Africa, has led the global charge for sweeping waivers for jabs and other vaccine-related materials at the World Trade Organization.

Europe’s response comes days after President Joe Biden’s top trade adviser, Katherine Tai, said the US would support a waiver of intellectual property protections for Covid-19 vaccines. Such a move would allow pharmaceutical manufacturers to make “copycat” vaccines without fear of being sued for infringing intellectual property rights. 

The Biden administration’s proposal wrongfooted the EU and prompted a frosty response from leading member states including Germany, home to the pharmaceutical company BioNTech, which together with Pfizer makes one of the leading Covid-19 vaccines. 

Mark Rutte, Dutch prime minister, said among leaders there was a “general hesitancy” to support the patent waiver. “There could be a paradox that by granting IP waivers, you could have issues around ramping up production,” he told journalists after the summit, warning that waivers could disrupt existing global supply chains for vaccines. Current mRNA vaccines draw on 280 components sourced from 19 countries.

EU officials said Washington had given Brussels advance notice of the patent move shortly before it was made public on Wednesday, but that there was no consultation or attempt to co-ordinate positions.

Another issue, according to an official, was that access to patents was not the same as acquiring the knowledge to make a vaccine. Approximately 80 to 100 patents were involved in the creation of an mRNA vaccine, the official said, adding that even access to all of them “doesn’t give you the overview how to produce the vaccine, for that you need the know how and the technology”.

Brussels also argues that existing international agreements on intellectual property already offer some flexibility on sharing vaccine IP, including possibilities for compulsory licensing.

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