MEPs vow to waive COVID vaccine patents amid Commission’s resistance

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen delivers a speech on IP waiver during a plenary session at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. [EPA-EFE/JULIEN WARNAND / POOL]

The European Parliament endorsed a resolution on Wednesday (9 June) calling for a temporary waiver of COVID-19 vaccine patents, while the Commission remained firm in its opposition to such measures and said it has different plans to speed up the global vaccine rollout.

The Parliament voted in support of waiving COVID-19 vaccine intellectual property (IP) rights with 355 to 263 and 71 abstentions.

The vote came after a debate on whether the EU should join other countries such as South Africa and India in demanding a waiver of IP rights in the context of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

MEPs were largely split: while some called on the Commission to support the waiver, others, particularly from the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), argued that this would not accelerate the provision of vaccines and would harm innovation.

Lawmakers in the European Parliament’s trade committee expressed their pro-waiver position on 25 May, after adopting a report on the trade-related aspects and implications of COVID-19.

The report urged the EU to engage in constructive talks with the WTO for a temporary waiver from the IPR protection on COVID-19 vaccines, to ensure that countries do not face retaliation over COVID-19-related patent infringements.

In the plenary session on Wednesday, German MEP Ska Keller, co-president of the Greens – who are the main promoters of the IP waiver together with the socialists and leftist groups – stressed that despite the vaccination efforts “finally picking up [in the EU], we should never forget that many countries globally hardly have any access to vaccines”.

Commission set to propose alternatives to COVID vaccine IP waiver

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.

“The slogan of ‘no one is safe until everyone is safe’ finally needs to be filled with life,” Keller said, highlighting that donations of financial means and vaccines are not enough. The production also needs to be ramped up. 

According to the Greens leader, one tool to bring this forward and boost global vaccine production is the temporary waiver of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), as well as compulsory licensing and knowledge sharing for countries of the south of the world.

The waiver would cover obligations in four sections of TRIPS – copyright and related rights, industrial designs, patents, and the protection of undisclosed information.

But Commission is against

The EU executive does not share the same view though. Since the US administration backed the IP waiver idea in May, the Commission initially said it would remain open for discussions on the issue.

However, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stressed before European lawmakers on Wednesday that IP rights have to remain protected to ensure the necessary transfer of technologies and know-how in emergencies.

“I want to be very clear: the intellectual property has to be protected because it is the idea behind the breakthrough and it retains the incentives for innovation in research and development,” she said. 

Voluntary licences, von der Leyen added, are the most effective way to facilitate expanding production but during the emergencies, such as this pandemic, compulsory licensing has to be used as a “legitimate tool” to scale up production.

EU proposes alternative to IP waiver to expand global vaccine access

The EU has 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 an IP waiver. 

The Commission has submitted a proposal to the WTO that banks on open supply chains, encouraging production and compulsory licences rather than waiving IP rights.

The Commission’s reasoning for this alternative proposal was that the main problem for scaling up vaccines production is the insufficient manufacturing capacity to rapidly produce the required quantities rather than patents.

“Together with WTO, we want to clarify and simplify the use of compulsory licensing in times of national emergency,” von der Leyen said, highlighting the necessity of technology, skilled personnel and infrastructure. 

“Simply waiving intellectual property rights will not get you there. It is actually by collaboration and, if needed, by compulsory licensing, that you enhance technology transfer. The patent is not telling the whole story, the patent is explaining a part of the production process,” the Commission president said.

The European Council seems to support the Commission’s stance. Council President Charles Michel said that “we wish to focus on the European Commission’s initiative”, adding that this proposal “is stepping up vaccine production capacity, our resilience in the framework of specific partnerships”.

But for Italian MEP Tiziana Beghin, the resolution approved by the European Parliament clearly shows that the Commission has no majority on this topic in the only European body democratically elected by citizens.

“There is no going back. The previous position has been defeated and it would be serious if the Parliament’s position were ignored,” she commented after the vote.

[Edited by Gerardo Fortuna/Zoran Radosavljevic]

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