Vaccine waiver battle rumbles into EU–African Union summit

The rapid spread of the Omicron variant has reminded us that the pandemic will not be over until all countries have vaccinated their people. The EU should focus its attention on vaccinating Africa, writes Professor Alberto Mantovani. EPA-EFE/SIPHIWE SIBEKO / POOL

EU and African officials are still at loggerheads over whether to waive intellectual property protection for COVID vaccines ahead of a meeting between EU and African Union foreign ministers meet in Rwanda next week.

Officials say they have been in “intense talks” on how to increase the availability of vaccines to developing countries. The EU and the United States and a group of developing countries, led by India and South Africa, have spent the past year lobbying for intellectual property (IP) rights on COVID vaccines to be waived.

Lifting patent protection, even for a limited period of time, would allow countries to produce their own versions of the vaccine.

However, civil society organisations say the EU’s latest proposal falls far short of allowing the conditions for vaccine production.

Medecins Sans Frontiere argued that the EU proposal “focuses only on compulsory licensing on patents and does not address legal barriers related to regulatory data and trade secrets, which are critical to start rapid production by alternate manufactures, particularly in view of originator companies refusing to share their technologies”.

“It focuses on products, but completely excludes mention of underlying technologies, components, raw materials, process and methods that are also protected under intellectual property (IP) and are equally important to initiate production by other companies,” MSF added.

The World Trade Organisation wants to reach an agreement on the issue at its ministerial conference which starts in Geneva on 30 November.

The issue remains low on the priority list of EU leaders. The communique which leaders are expected to agree at a European Council summit in Brussels on Thursday and Friday (21-22 October), “calls for the rapid removal of obstacles hampering the global roll-out of vaccines, and invites the Commission to further engage directly with manufacturers in this respect.”

“This will allow member states to speed up the delivery of vaccines to countries most in need. The EU will continue to support the production and uptake of vaccines in partner countries,” it adds.

The European Commission, meanwhile, has promised to help finance vaccine production hubs in several African states, a programme that could help respond to future pandemics.

However, the communique makes no reference to the vaccine waiver dispute.

Meanwhile, a combination of the deadlock over the patent waiver and the slow delivery of surplus vaccines donated by wealthy countries has resulted in a widening gap in the vaccination rates between rich and poor countries.

Of 1.8 billion doses pledged by wealthy nations, just 261 million, equivalent to 14%, have arrived in low-income countries, according to research published on Thursday by the People’s Vaccinealliance, a coalition of groups that includes Oxfam, ActionAid and Amnesty International.

Meanwhile, of 994 million doses promised to Covax, the global vaccination system to which the EU and the United States are the two largest donors, only 120 million have been delivered, according to the report.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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