MEPs vote down call for COVID vaccine IP waiver

Instead of being sidetracked by the debate on waiving patents on Covid vaccines, the EU needs a new pharma strategy and to strengthen its pharmaceutical industry, writes Pernille Weiss. [MAREEN/SHUTTERSTOCK]

An amendment calling on the EU to back India and South Africa’s proposal to temporary lift intellectual property rights for the COVID-19 vaccine was rejected by the European Parliament on Thursday (29 April).

The question of suspending IP rights for COVID-19 treatments and vaccines was first tabled by India and South Africa in a proposal to the World Trade Organization (WTO) which was backed by around 100 other countries.

According to the proponents, an IP waiver for vaccine patents could speed up vaccine access in poorer countries.

The waiver would cover obligations in four sections of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) that involves copyright and related rights, industrial designs, patents and the protection of undisclosed information.

However, the EU executive, including the bloc’s health commissioner Stella Kyriakides, is sceptical about the benefit of the IP rights waiver.

Commission, industry dubious about IP rights waiver for COVID-19 vaccines

Both the European Commission and vaccine manufacturers are not convinced by the potential benefits of waiving the intellectual property (IP) rights of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. 

The leftist group in the European Parliament presented a number of symbolic amendments to the Parliament’s position on green digital certificate, the COVID-19 travel document approved on Thursday, with the aim of raising awareness and making clear who is against the IP waiver.

According to The Left group co-president Manon Aubry, the Commission should focus on increasing vaccine production worldwide, instead of imposing a ‘green certificate’ that causes major concerns for scientists, as well as data protection and fundamental freedoms.

“Ursula Von der Leyen must stop being the international champion of big pharmas’ patents,” she told EURACTIV.

One of the proposed amendments was specifically tailored to lure out those parties who opposed the lifting of patents for COVID-19 vaccines.

The amendment stated that “the Union should support the India and South Africa WTO initiative for a temporary waiver of intellectual property rights with regard to COVID-19 vaccines and treatments and the pharmaceutical companies should share their knowledge and data through the WHO’s COVID-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP).”

The amendment was rejected by 454 votes to 162. With only a few exceptions, the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), the socialists (S&D) and the liberals (Renew Europe) voted against.

In February, the EPP group sent a letter to the European Council President Charles Michel to express why the party was against the IP waiver.

“We fully agree that we need to speed up vaccination also in developing countries, but waving the intellectual property rights only looks like a good solution, it is not,” the letter, seen by EURACTIV, reads.

The letter refers in particular to vaccines that use messenger RNA (mRNA) technology, considered as key to ending the pandemic.

EU Commission banks on mRNA vaccines for curbing COVID pandemic

The European Commission has moved to secure 1.8 billion more doses of the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine amid speculation that it will not renew contracts with pharma companies AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson.

The technology is a relatively new one, with human trials of vaccines using mRNA technology only starting in 2011. The Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines marked the first time this vaccine technology has completed human trials and been approved for use.

“This technology is very complicated, so if we just take away the patent rights of the companies that will not do the trick,” the EPP letter says, calling on different, comprehensive cooperation with the companies and developing countries that are able to produce vaccines.

However, the EU assembly’s leftists insist on the need to address the issue and called for an inquiry committee to be established to make sure that citizens and MEPs are on board in the process.

“There are several people in the EU institutions that think patents are not the problem. We also have several petitions with hundreds of world leaders who think precisely the opposite,” the leftist Portuguese MEP José Gusmão, commented after the vote.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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