US surprises Europe, backs waiving COVID-19 vaccines patents

Europe has so far opposed lifting patents. In the midst of the pandemic, the European Commission had said it had no plans to look into COVID-19 vaccine patent options. [EPA-EFE/JIM LO SCALZO]

Updates with Ursula von der Leyen comments

In a major shift on intellectual property rights, the US administration has backed lifting patents of COVID-19 vaccines in order to speed up vaccination of those in need worldwide. Europe had been reluctant about this option but EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen announced on Thursday that Europe is now exploring this option.

“This is a global health crisis and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures. The Administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections, but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for COVID-19 vaccines,” US Trade Representative Katherine Tai said in a statement.

Tai added that Washington would actively participate in text-based negotiations at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) needed to make that happen.

“The Administration’s aim is to get as many safe and effective vaccines to as many people as fast as possible. As our vaccine supply for the American people is secured, the Administration will continue to ramp up its efforts – working with the private sector and all possible partners – to expand vaccine manufacturing and distribution,” she said.

The move was hailed by Senator Bernie Sanders, who described it as a “bold step”.

“I also recognise the dedicated work done by activists around the world to put this issue on the global agenda. We are all in this together,” Sanders tweeted.

Almost half of the US population (44.2%) has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, with Israel and the UK being the frontrunners worldwide.

However, the US decision has triggered a negative reaction from the pharma industry.

“The decision of the US administration to support a patent waiver for COVID-19 vaccines is disappointing,” the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and  Associations (IFPMA) said in a statement.

IFPMA said waiving patents of COVID-19 vaccines will not increase production nor provide practical solutions needed to battle this global health crisis.

“On the contrary, it is likely to lead to disruption; while distracting from addressing the real challenges in scaling up production and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines globally: namely elimination of trade barriers, addressing bottlenecks in supply chains and scarcity of raw materials and ingredients in the supply chain, and a willingness by rich countries to start sharing doses with poor countries.”

Europe’s stance

EU Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen announced on Thursday (6 May) that the EU is ready to discuss any proposal that addresses the crisis in an effective and pragmatic manner.

“We are ready to discuss how the US proposal for waiver on intellectual property protection for covered vaccines could help achieve that objective,” Von der Leyen said.

Europe has so far opposed lifting patents. In the midst of the pandemic, the European Commission had said it had no plans to look into COVID-19 vaccine patent options.

EU sources had said the European Commission aimed to ramp up production of COVID-19 vaccines through “voluntary” sharing of know-how among pharma companies, emphasising that patents are not an obstacle to do that.

“What is most needed now, beyond developing vaccines, is the ramping up of manufacturing of vaccines,” said a source at the European Commission, which coordinates the joint purchase of vaccines at the EU level.

“And the best way of achieving that is by disseminating the technology and know-how of those who developed the vaccines through licensing arrangements,” the source told EURACTIV, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The source said the WTO rules are already flexible enough to address problems in the licensing of vaccines technology and know-how, including through the granting of compulsory licences without the patent owner’s consent which can be fast-tracked in emergencies such as the current pandemic.

“Compulsory licences can also be granted for export to countries with no or insufficient manufacturing capacity. These flexibilities under WTO rules are legitimate tools to use for the countries in need, if other solutions are not forthcoming.”

“The EU stands ready to actively contribute to an open and comprehensive dialogue with all WTO Members to explore how the multilateral rules-based trading system can best support universal and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines and treatments,” the source added.

Kyriakides: Lifting patents is not way forward to produce more vaccines

Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides on Tuesday (13 April) acknowledged the need to accelerate production of COVID-19 vaccines but stressed that lifting patents is not a way forward and that other options are under consideration.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

German social democrat MEP (S&D) Udo Bullmann commented: "The decision by the Biden Administration to support waiving patent rights on COVID-19 vaccines can be the game changer to end this pandemic. The EU immediately has to follow suit. It remains a mystery why Ursula von der Leyen and the EU Commission were blocking these efforts in the past. We social democrats were demanding the opening of patents since the very beginning."

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