This article is part of our special report Reshaping global health after COVID-19.
A series of protests have been staged in front of the European Commission and at a vaccine manufacturing plant in Belgium, calling for temporarily lifting of the intellectual property (IP) rights of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments.
Whoever happened to be strolling along the EU district in Brussels on Wednesday (2 June) could hardly miss a big banner rolled out in front of the Berlaymont, the headquarters of the EU executive, reading ‘Patents kill’.
Some campaigners who pitched camp there held smaller placards saying ‘Access to Vaccine. Right, not a privilege’ and ‘No profits from the pandemics’.
The protest was part of the global campaign Vaccinate our world (VOW), which calls on governments and decision-makers not to politicise COVID-19 vaccines and instead make efforts to fully immunise citizens across the world.
The campaign is now focusing on suspending patents for COVID-19 vaccines, in a bid to speed up vaccine access in poorer countries.
The issue of waiving 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.
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 relevant EU decision-makers, including the bloc’s Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides, have so far been quite sceptical about the benefits of the IP rights waiver.
According to the pharmaceutical industry, the waiver would have little positive impact without a transfer of know-how and technology, which remains difficult at this stage.
“We understand that patents are important for innovation,” a protester told EURACTIV after the demonstration. “However, when health is at stake, they need to be temporarily waived because we are talking about saving people’s lives,” she added.
A similar protest was organised on Thursday (3 June) outside Pfizer’s manufacturing plant in Puurs, Belgium.
Campaigners told EURACTIV that the action is not aimed against Pfizer or any single company but points the finger at the whole pharmaceutical sector that is opposing the waiver of patents.
In an expected shift, US president Joe Biden openly supported a patent waiver last month, putting pressure on more reluctant global health players such as the EU and Switzerland.
Although Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Brussels was ready to discuss the proposal after Washington’s backing, the bloc is currently preparing a proposal to the WTO for increasing vaccine production that considers alternatives to waiving patents
“As a European, I’m ashamed that the significant support on this did not come from the EU first,” socialist MEP Juozas Olekas told a recent event organised by the VOW campaign.
The Lithuanian lawmaker has recently signed an open letter to the European Commission supporting a temporary waiver of the IP rights and knowledge-sharing in the process.
For the VOW campaigners, the IP waiver could be the first milestone of a longer path that could help to rethink health globally and build new infrastructure across the world.
“We need to decolonise global health, and this means we need to share some knowledge and think broadly,” another campaigner told EURACTIV outside the Commission building.
The EU is engaged in some actions aimed at increasing awareness and the Commission published a report on Thursday on how the major digital social platforms are tackling disinformation on coronavirus.
For instance, Facebook launched vaccine profile picture frames, while Twitter held conversations on vaccines that received five million impressions.
Lives over profits
At least nine people have become new billionaires since the beginning of the COVID pandemic, according to a recent report drafted by the People’s Vaccine Alliance, which includes NGOs Oxfam and the United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).
The authors of the study have processed data from the Forbes Rich List, concluding that this massive wealth concentration has been generated by vaccines, for a handful of people.
“We cannot ignore that injustice sometimes hurts more than a virus,” said the Lithuanian MEP Olekas, who is a doctor and a former Lithuanian health minister.
According to the socialist lawmaker, those at the bottom of the social global ladder have faced more significant difficulties in fighting for their lives than those at the top.
Big pharma companies, he added, have used this pandemic to accumulate enormous extra profits and are now trying to make people believe that the waiver of IP rights would not solve the problem.
“We can overcome this pandemic only by walking together and putting the interests of their private capital in the second place,” he concluded.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]