BRUSSELS – Under increasing pressure, the European Union is considering following the decision of the Biden government to support a waiver of patent rights for Covid-19 vaccines as many poor and low-income countries struggle to obtain life-saving doses.
The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, did not directly support President Biden’s decision in a speech on Thursday morning, but said the European Union was “also ready to discuss proposals for effective and pragmatic management of the crisis”.
“So we are ready to discuss how the US proposal to remove intellectual property protection for Covid-19 vaccines could help achieve this goal,” she said at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. “In the short term, however, we are calling on all vaccine-producing countries to allow exports and avoid measures that disrupt supply chains.”
Her comments represent a postponement as she previously said that she does not support patent waivers.
The United States was a major contributor to the World Trade Organization on a proposal to suspend some intellectual property protections that could give drug manufacturers access to the trade secrets behind the manufacture of the vaccines. However, President Biden had come under increasing pressure to support the proposal made by India and South Africa.
The European Union is one of the world’s largest manufacturers, exporters and consumers of vaccines and has so far spoken out against activism at WTO level to recognize the pandemic as a major emergency and to lift protective measures for the vaccines so that they can ultimately be produced in larger quantities Quantities from manufacturers around the world.
Calls to change course on patent waivers have increased in recent weeks as India’s catastrophic coronavirus wave has plunged the country into the worst outbreak the world has seen since the pandemic began.
The European Union is about to announce a contract with Pfizer-BioNTech for 2022 and 2023 that will include 1.8 billion doses of boosters, variants and children’s vaccines, and will exacerbate global inequality. The United States said it would also start vaccinating children over the age of 12.
In some poorer countries, frontline health workers still lack access to a single shot of the vaccine.
U.S. trade representative Katherine Tai announced the government’s position on Wednesday afternoon as the pandemic deepened in India and South America.
May 6, 2021, 5:25 p.m. ET
“This is a global health crisis and the exceptional circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic call for exceptional measures,” she said in a statement. “The government is a firm believer in the protection of intellectual property, but supports the waiver of this protection for Covid-19 vaccines in the service of ending this pandemic.”
Any proposal to waive patents would require the unanimous approval of WTO members, so the support of the European Union is necessary. But even if the proposal is adopted, it could hardly affect the availability of vaccines in the short term.
Eighty-three percent of admissions worldwide were in high- and middle-income countries. Only 0.2 percent of the doses were given in low-income countries. In North America, 48 out of 100 adults received at least one dose of vaccine. In Europe it is 31 per 100 adults. In Africa it is 1.3, according to the New York Times.
On Thursday, Ms. von der Leyen reaffirmed the European Union’s belief that in the fight against the pandemic, “nobody is safe until everyone is safe”.
This idea, she said, was as true for the European continent as it was for the world. She said she couldn’t imagine what it would have meant if some countries in the European Union had secured vaccines while others had waived them.
“Economically, it would have made no sense at all with such an integrated internal market,” she said. “And politically it would have torn our union apart.”
However, tackling global inequality will be a far greater challenge.
The bloc has enabled large vaccine exports and made large financial contributions to initiatives aimed at spreading vaccines to poorer countries.
However, amid criticism at home for not doing as much as the United States and Britain to vaccinate their own residents faster, it has stopped putting its weight behind the growing global movement for Covid-19 vaccine patent repeal to throw. It has also held back from encouraging pharmaceutical companies to share their technological know-how to build global manufacturing capabilities.
A change of course would be a major turning point for Ms. von der Leyen. In an interview with The Times in which she previewed the Pfizer BioNTech deal last month, she spoke out strongly against sharing vaccine patents.
“I’m not at all friends with the release of patents,” said Ms. von der Leyen, making a general argument by pharmaceutical companies that private companies are partly responsible for the innovation that is driving the rapid development of Covid-19 vaccines. “That’s why you need this private sector ingenuity,” she added.
Marc Santora contributed to coverage from London.