EU defends IP waiver compromise amid pressure on India, South Africa to reject it

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A broad international platform of activists, unions and experts has urged India and South Africa to reject the leaked compromise on intellectual property rights on COVID-19 vaccines, which the European Commission considers the ‘most promising path’ to resolve the issue.

A letter – signed by 308 NGOs, unions, academics, and experts from across the world and addressed to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa – called the leaked text on intellectual property (IP) waivers “inadequate” and “a step backwards from an already untenable status quo.”

India and South Africa are the recipients of this letter as two out of four members, along with the EU and the US, of ‘the Quad’, a group within the World Trade Organisation negotiating a compromise on an intellectual property (IP) waiver before it reaches the rest of the WTO members.

It is almost 18 months since India and South Africa asked the WTO to waive IP rights for medicines in the hope of aiding the “prevention, containment and treatment of COVID-19”. So far, there has been no waiver and countries remain divided.

Responding to the strong criticism against the EU presented in the letter, a Commission spokesperson told EURACTIV that the “EU has been intensively engaged with other WTO members to deliver on a trade policy response”.

According to the Commission, the spokesperson said, the leaked provisional compromise text “maintains, in our common interest, a functioning intellectual property framework, with incentives for investment, research and transfer of technology, which are indispensable both for the development of new vaccines and medicines but also for the strengthening of the production capacity of African countries”.

He highlighted that we need “the intellectual property framework which secures the rights of innovators” given that an increase in production in developing countries requires transfers of know-how and investment from pharmaceutical companies that produced COVID-19 vaccines.

New challenges ahead as provisional compromise on IP waivers is reached in WTO

News of a provisional compromise to waive intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines between the EU, USA, India and South Africa in the World Trade Organisation (WTO), leaves out treatments for COVID-19.

“Original vision under threat” or “most promising path”?

The leaked text showed possible plans to waive only IP rights on vaccines but not yet on treatments for COVID-19. However, it also states that, within six months of a final WTO agreement, WTO members must decide on whether to extend it to include COVID-19 diagnostics and therapeutics as well.

Additionally, it suggested that a final decision would be restricted to five years and that the waiver would apply to the WTO members who exported less than 10% of the world’s vaccine doses in 2021, a provision that catches the EU, China, and the US.

The signatories of the letter said the leaked text bears no resemblance to the TRIPS Waiver proposal originally put forward by South Africa and India.

“It is instead the lowest common denominator of the European Union’s opposition to waiving intellectual property barriers and the United States government’s insistence that it be limited to vaccines and exclude certain countries,” the letter said, insisting that the original vision of an IP waiver is under threat.

What they deem worse is that it “would inexplicably and unjustifiably erect more barriers to manufacturing life-saving medical technologies, including adding an impossible requirement to list every patent related to a vaccine”.

South Africa urged to reject EU offer on COVID waiver

Leading economists have urged South African President Cyril Ramaphosa to reject an EU and US compromise that would provide a temporary waiver on the intellectual property rights on COVID vaccines, warning that “a bad deal is worse than no deal”.

EU member states are represented as a whole at the WTO by the European Commission and trade commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis.

The final declaration from the EU-African Union summit in February declared that the AU and the EU were committed to “engaging constructively towards an agreement” on IP rights.

“At the WTO, the EU advocates a comprehensive approach, which would include intellectual property, in addition to commitments on improved transparency, restraint from export restrictions as well as trade facilitating measures,” the Commission spokesperson told EURACTIV.

“Recently these discussions resulted in a compromise outcome between key members of the WTO that offers what we believe is the most promising path toward achieving a meaningful outcome among all WTO members,” the source added.

EU-AU summit makes big health promises, but not on IP waivers

EU and African leaders laid out a number of promises to secure equitable access to vaccines at the end of a two-day summit in Brussels on Friday (18 February). No decision on lifting intellectual property rights was reached, however.

Industry still sceptical about IP waiver

When the leaked text surfaced, the European Association of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers (EFPIA) called “on governments across Europe and around the world to urgently rethink discussions on a COVID vaccine waiver and instead focus on the real barriers to global vaccine equity”.

At a Global Biopharma CEO/Top Executives COVID-19 press briefing on Wednesday (13 April), the IP waiver was also touched upon.

David Ricks, chair and CEO of Lilly pharmaceuticals, said that “the goal may be shared between industry and the critics who are driving this discussion, which is to ensure that our medicines and vaccines reach everyone in the world in an equitable and fair way”.

He said he could not see how changing the rules on IP will help achieve that goal, warning that it may even be “undermining” it. He denied that there is a current constraint on the supply of medicines or vaccines.

“So as a practical matter, it’s not a supply problem. It’s not a demand problem. It’s a matching of supply and demand problem. An IP waiver will do nothing to change that equation. I think there are other practical matters that are important to focus on, there’s been a call to build capacities in developing countries so they can respond to this pandemic,” Ricks said.

Albert Boula, CEO of Pfizer, agreed with Ricks and added that it is tricky to get the vaccines distributed in developing countries as “the problem is that the infrastructure in a lot of these countries is very poor, so they cannot absorb”.

The pandemic has prompted African states, and the African Union, to prioritise building up their own pharmaceutical production capacity and supply chains. In February, BioNTech announced that they would produce vaccines at centres in Rwanda and Senegal.

[Edited by Gerardo Fortuna/Zoran Radosavljevic]

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