Wealthy nations are buying up hundreds of millions of COVID-19 vaccine doses while poorer countries are struggling to secure basic supplies. EU lawmaker Udo Bullmann (S&D) has called for a global vaccination strategy to avert a “human catastrophe” but the European Commission has ruled out the idea of a mandatory release of vaccine patents.
“It would be narrow-minded and unforgivable if we limited ourselves only to European needs,” Bullmann, the Socialist group’s Development committee coordinator in the European Parliament, said in a group statement on 19 January.
“Only when everyone is vaccinated are we all protected,” the MEPs warned.
The socialists have called on the Commission to scrutinise vaccine patents in order to facilitate access to vaccines for governments in the ‘Global South’. India and South Africa called on the World Trade Organization (WTO) last December to suspend patents on COVID vaccines.
Technically, there are two ways for the EU to enforce this, Bullmann explained to EURACTIV: either with the help of a ‘full waiver’, a special release that would force vaccine manufacturers to relinquish their patent rights – which can only be decided unanimously – or by means of a compulsory licence, which would impose the licence release only for a specific purpose and period of time, without permanently depriving manufacturers of their patent rights.
This latter intervention “can in principle be triggered by the manufacturer’s home country, in this case by the EU,” Bullmann said. Unanimity is not necessary.
A public good
Leftist MEP and Parliament Vice-President, Dimitris Papadimoulis (GUE-NGL), has also called for European action on vaccine patents in a letter to leaders of the EU institutions.
“It is time for COVID-19 vaccines to be treated in practice as public goods guaranteed to all,” Papadimoulis told EURACTIV, adding that this includes the poorest and less developed non-EU countries.
“The Commission has already committed significant resources to this end. But the EU must overcome the obstacles and restrictions arising from patents and intellectual property rights and acquire them to enable the widespread production and distribution of vaccines in all countries and to all citizens, “he added.
According to Bullmann, however, the European Commission is “struggling” to consider these tools. “The Commission argues: if we use one or the other sharp sword now, we take away the motivation for vaccine producers to expand their capacities,” he said.
Forcing a licence release could stall production, he believes. Full patent release could also give countries free access to state-of-the-art vaccines and allow them to develop them further for profit after the crisis.
According to an EU spokesperson, the Commission does not plan to examine the various options for releasing vaccine patents. “Vaccine developers retain their intellectual property rights,” the spokesperson told EURACTIV Germany.
“For many decades, publicly funded research programs have provided for beneficiary companies and universities to retain their intellectual property,” the spokesperson said. However, publicly funded research already enjoys “broad access” to research data, the EU official added.
The Commission added that vaccine developers, public or private, should not in principle have to give up their intellectual property rights. “We expect them to commit to the goal of universal and affordable access to diagnostics, treatments and vaccines,” a spokesperson told EURACTIV.
However, in line with the recent World Health Assembly resolution, the Commission supports voluntary licencing of intellectual property to promote equitable and global access to treatments for coronavirus, he said.
“We all share a common goal of ensuring that vaccines are made available to all and that intellectual property rights do not impede equitable access for poorer countries and populations,” the spokesperson said.
“It is up to each donor to take protective measures to ensure their funds are used in the spirit of the Coronavirus Global Response Initiative. That means access to future vaccines should be affordable, equitable and global to ensure no one is left behind.”
Warning of ‘catastrophic moral failure’
Bullmann, however, argues the steps taken so far are not enough: “If we don’t act internationally, a human catastrophe is coming our way,” he said.
A leading role for the EU in a global vaccination strategy is “imperative” to prevent human suffering and to advance a “socially responsible geopolitics.” This is also in the interest of the ‘North’ because “as long as the Global South is not vaccinated, we will keep getting re-infected by mutations of the coronavirus,” Bullmann said.
The EU supports the COVAX initiative, which aims to guarantee fair access to vaccines for countries around the world, and is the world’s largest donor with €850 million, according to Bullmann.
“But the EU cannot give money to COVAX on the one hand and at the same time buy up production without helping to ensure that production capacity is expanded,” he continued.
Bullmann criticised the fact that a large proportion of the vaccines that will be available in 2021 have already been bought up by the richest countries, even though they account for a relatively small proportion of the world’s population.
For example, the African Union secured 300 million doses of vaccines earlier this year, but the African continent has a population of more than 1.2 billion. By comparison, Germany, thanks to the EU’s vaccine distribution and its own deals with manufacturers, should have 300 million vaccine doses alone – for 83 million citizens.
According to Bullmann, the COVAX initiative should become the EU’s “top priority.” The Union has the capacity to engage “constructively” on the patent rights issue, he said. “If we are serious,” the parliamentarian said, “Europe must show the way.”
On 18 January, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director of the World Health Organization (WHO), also warned of the impact of the vaccine race being dominated by wealthy nations. “The world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure – and the price of that failure will be paid with lives and livelihoods in the world’s poorest countries,” Ghebreyesus said.
While 39 million doses of vaccine have already been administered in the world’s richest countries, Ghebreyesus said that in one of the world’s poorest countries, “it’s not 25 million, not 25,0000, just 25.”
[Edited by Sarantis Michalopoulos/Zoran Radosavljevic]