We need to prepare the world for the next health crisis now – MEP

Kathleen Van Brempt is a Belgian socialist MEP who's Parliament's rapporteur on the trade-related aspects and implications of COVID-19. [EP/VIDAL]

This article is part of our special report Reshaping global health after COVID-19.

The world needs to rethink intellectual property rights to get ready for the next pandemic and Europe has to do its part as a constructive partner at the negotiating table, Belgian socialist MEP Kathleen Van Brempt told EURACTIV in an interview.

Kathleen Van Brempt is the European Parliament’s rapporteur on the trade-related aspects and implications of COVID-19. She spoke to EURACTIV’s health reporter Giedre Peseckyte.

You are the rapporteur on a file dealing with trade-related aspects and implications of COVID-19. Why is that relevant now?

With the Commission’s new mandate, the narrative of the Green Deal and geopolitical challenges ahead, it was crystal clear that Europe needed another take on trade: how to reorganise multilateralism, how to position the EU in the world in a stronger way than in the past.

But also, public opinion has entered the debate on trade and COVID-19 made this even more urgent. And since the Commission is coming up with a review of its trade policy, we combined our reactions on this aspect too.

How could this new stance of the Parliament change the EU’s trade?

We want to change drastically the narrative on sustainability. But there’s also a need to be much more attentive to global trade when it comes to health. The world wasn’t ready for this pandemic and that resulted in something that was unacceptable, namely, that today vaccines are accessible and affordable for rich countries, but not for the lower-middle-income countries. We need to prepare the world much better for the next health crisis.

How?

First of all, we need to keep the world open and not closed, which was what happened. There was a necessity to keep people from travelling, which is understandable, but that does not mean you have to reintroduce borders.

Also, we need much more knowledge on where medicines, protective material, and vaccines are produced. What is their production capacity? The crisis with vaccine manufacturing companies we had at the beginning of this year means that we need to know much more about value chains and how they work.

Commission outlines ‘greener’ and more assertive trade policy

A tougher approach with partners and more focus on climate and labour rights will be key pillars of the new EU trade policy outlined by the European Commission on Thursday (18 February). 

The report also touches on the importance of transparency on the supply and production, but how to achieve that?

It’s extremely important that you force these companies to be more open and transparent when dealing with the public good. And in that sense, you cannot just ask, you have to force more transparency on these issues.

And then having a transparency mechanism for everything that comes in and out of the European internal market is also a good instrument but, there is a need for an institution within the Commission that really monitors all these issues.

The report also calls for a revision of the World Trade Organisation’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). What is the goal?

There’s a paragraph on it in the report, but it’s not very strong because there was no majority in the Parliament’s trade committee and we’ll see whether there is more support in the plenary.

I’m not against intellectual property rights but I think in a pandemic, you need to do whatever it takes to solve the problem. And if waiving the patents, at least temporarily, makes sure that you can ramp up production, then you should do that. I think there is a huge agreement that we start looking into these intellectual property rights to prepare the world for the next pandemics.

For sure, waiving the intellectual property rights of the vaccines alone is not the solution unless it goes hand in hand with technology transfer, with the education and training of people. Why wouldn’t we try everything that can work to make sure that we have all the vaccines by the end of the year for everybody?

The Parliament has just voted in favour of waiving patents.

This is a very strong message towards the Commission. The time to stop blocking further talks on the temporary waiver of patents for COVID-19 vaccines and related medical products is over. The TRIPS council decided to start text-based negotiations on the proposal for temporary patent waiver and Europe can choose where it prefers to sit: at the table as a constructive partner or just on the sidelines without any impact.

What is heard from manufacturers is that there are no capacities to do know-how and technology transfers. What is your opinion on this?

What you need to do then is to force. Europe can force its companies to do technology transfer. We could write in the next purchase agreements with these companies that they need to share that technology with African countries, for instance. So it’s a broad discussion. It is not so easy just to say, okay, we waive and voila, my conscience is clear, let’s move on. That doesn’t work.

Is compulsory licencing not enough? The Commission seems to be advocating for it.

The flexibilities within the TRIPS agreement do not work. The compulsory license implies a heavy administrative burden that is not really workable. So in any case for the future, we will have to look into the TRIPS agreement and how to make it much more reliable in pandemics.

Last week, the Commission presented its alternative to waiving IP rights. What’s your take on that?

Trade Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis is trying to do something, but I don’t think it’s good enough. What you need to do is change the TRIPS agreement and that will lead to a broader discussion. You really need to rethink intellectual properties within a pandemic situation. So my suggestion would be to sit down and negotiate on the waiver, and then come up with an initiative for the future.

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. 

[Edited by Gerardo Fortuna]

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