As the debate on waiving intellectual property (IP) rights on COVID vaccines heats up, the European Commission is working on an alternative proposal that it wants to submit to the World Trade Organisation, while EU lawmakers remain split on the subject.
South Africa and India’s proposal to suspend IP rights for COVID-19 treatments and vaccines was tabled to the WTO last October, arguing that it could speed up vaccine access in poorer countries.
The proposal was followed by an open letter on 14 April calling on US President Joe Biden to support the suspension. May, Washington announced that it would support the waiver earlier this month.
The waiver would cover obligations in four sections of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). It involves copyright and related rights, industrial designs, patents and the protection of undisclosed information.
However, the EU still has no clear position on the waiver question and Wednesday’s (19 May) debate in the European Parliament illustrated how polarised MEPs are on this issue.
While some MEPs called on the Commission to support the waiver, others argued that it would not speed up the provision of vaccines and would harm innovation.
“THe European Union is willing to discuss any concrete proposals on intellectual property rights for vaccines,” said Augusto Santos Silva, minister of state for foreign affairs of Portugal, which currently chairs the EU Council.
“We do need these proposals to be presented in some detail so that we can indeed discuss them. And this is what we would like to see the USA do by presenting its proposal,” Silva explained.
European Commission executive vice-president Valdis Dombrovskis also highlighted that the EU executive is ready to examine and discuss all options.
“Europe will do everything possible to support efficient, fast and realistic solutions for expanding production and facilitating equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics. We are ready to walk the talk,” said Dombrovskis.
The Commission is preparing a proposal to the WTO
Dombrovskis said the Commission is going to present a three-part proposal to the WTO which should help to increase vaccine production and access.
The first part, focusing on trade facilitation and disciplines on export restrictions, should help to keep the supply chains open and ensure the export of a fair share of production from producing countries.
The second part focuses on the expansion of production. “Governments should strongly encourage vaccine manufacturers and developers to expand production and ensure adequate supply of vaccines at production costs to low and middle-income countries during a pandemic,” Dombrovskis explained.
The last element is on clarification and facilitation of TRIPS agreement relating to compulsory licenses.
“While volunteer licenses are more effective as an instrument to facilitate the expansion of production and sharing of know-how, compulsory licenses are a perfectly legitimate tool in the context of a pandemic,” Dombrovskis explained.
“The European Commission stands ready to fully support the WTO Director-General in efforts to ensure equitable global access to COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics,” he added.
On Thursday (20 May) Parliament’s Committee on Trade met with WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who said that “getting the Intellectual Property rights waiver for vaccines will not be enough”.
Other alternatives were listed, such as reducing export restrictions and reinforcing supply chains for vaccines, working with manufacturers to expand production, including in emerging countries with idle capacity and transferring the necessary technology and expertise to produce the complicated vaccines.
“The IP waiver is a hot issue on which I cannot take sides. But we need more flexibility and automatic access for developing countries, and at the same time, we have to protect research and development,” Okonjo-Iweala added.
What other options are available
Speeding up manufacturing capacity is the EU’s main concern. “The European Union’s priority is to increase the production of COVID-19 vaccines to achieve global vaccination,” Portugal’s Silva said on Wednesday.
For this, he called for focusing on “the implementation of the flexibilities that already exist in the TRIPS agreement”.
He added that the WTO and TRIPS framework has “many other possibilities” to increase the transparency of supply chains, tackle bottlenecks and eliminate export restrictions. Knowledge sharing platforms and licencing initiatives were also mentioned as possible solutions for increasing access to vaccines.
Silva urged all producing countries to export vaccines. “All the vaccine producing countries must commit together with the European Union to export components and vaccine doses so that everybody else can have access to vaccines too,” he said.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic and Benjamin Fox]