The EU on Friday (4 June) set out its plan to boost deliveries of COVID-19 vaccines to developing countries, which banks on open supply chains, encouraging production and compulsory licences rather than waiving intellectual property rights.
The EU has submitted its proposal to the World Trade Organization (WTO), a multilateral trade action plan envisaged to expand the production of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments, while ensuring universal and fair access.
Calling this a “holistic response”, an EU official said this plan is designed to ensure that COVID-19 supply chains are open and vaccines, treatments and their components can cross borders freely. It is hoped that producers can be encouraged to expand their production, while ensuring that those countries most in need of vaccines receive them at an affordable price.
The plan maintains that where voluntary cooperation fails, compulsory licencing within the WTO’s existing Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) should be used to facilitate the expansion of production and sharing of expertise, rather than IP waiver.
This is because access to ingredients needed for vaccine production and access to know-how are the main issues that slow down the roll-out of the vaccines, issues which cannot be solved with IP waiver.
A Commission official said that “the patent is not telling the whole story” and waiving IP rights would not help to increase the production of vaccines.
“Vaccines require know-how. It is not by waiving patents or waiving any intellectual property rights that you get there,” the official said, adding that the Commission was concerned an IP waiver may negatively impact technology transfer and vaccines’ innovation.
Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that “the EU proposes concrete short and medium-term solutions to ensure universal access at affordable prices.” She is due to discuss the EU’s proposal next week G7 leaders next week how to achieve this goal.
Executive vice-president and commissioner for trade, Valdis Dombrovskis, highlighted the urgency of the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines worldwide.
“In this respect, a strong multilateral trade response could deliver a huge boost in the fight against COVID-19,” he said.
He added that the main problem at this moment is the insufficient manufacturing capacity to rapidly produce the required quantities.
“The objective must be to ensure that any available and adequate manufacturing capacity anywhere in the world is used for the production of the COVID-19 vaccines,” Dombrovskis said.
The proposal to suspend IP rights for COVID-19 treatments and vaccines was first put forward in October by South Africa and India, which argued that it could speed up vaccine access in poorer countries.
It was followed by an open letter on 14 April calling on US President Joe Biden to support the suspension. In May, Washington announced that it would support the waiver.
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 Commission official said that the EU remains open to further discussions on IP waiver suggestions.
[Edited by Josie Le Blond]