Europe offers an alternative to the lifting of patents on Covid-19 vaccines

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The European Union is vigorously pushing back US-backed calls to temporarily relinquish intellectual property rights to Covid-19 vaccines, preparing a rival plan that officials say would better protect pharmaceutical companies’ patents and seek others ways to increase supplies to developing countries.

As the gap between vaccines have and have not widened, Washington and China have approved a proposal by developing countries at the World Trade Organization to suspend patent protection for vaccines.

Brussels’ alternative plan would lift restrictions on the export of vaccines and their raw materials, increase manufacturing capacity globally and make it easier for countries to use existing rules to bypass patents in some cases, according to documents reviewed by the Wall Street Journal.

The EU’s position makes a swift agreement on the waiver proposal less likely and could derail it altogether, trade experts say.

EU officials have said they will present the proposal to the WTO next week, when members are also expected to discuss the waiver. They argue that removing patents won’t do much to boost production in the short term and would remove incentives for drug companies to continue their work, such as updating vaccines against viral mutations.

“The rules-based global trading system can help ensure rapid expansion of production and equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines and therapeutics,” says the EU’s draft plan.

European leaders are already trying to push elements of the plan forward. French President Emmanuel Macron and German Minister of Health Jens Spahn visited South Africa last week to meet and offer funding to increase the production of Covid-19 snapshots on the continent.

South Africa and India lead more than 60 countries who say intellectual property rights held by pharmaceutical companies prevent them from producing Covid-19 vaccines locally at a time when they say rich countries bought much of this year’s supply.

A delivery of the Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine being unloaded in Johannesburg in February.


Photo:

Kim Ludbrook / Pool Press

Their current proposal at the WTO includes a three-year intellectual property waiver for drugs and testing technologies to treat infected people and prevent their spread. The United States and China have not explicitly endorsed this part of the plan.

Africa currently imports 99% of the vaccines it needs and has administered less than 2% of the Covid-19 vaccines administered globally.

The EU’s proposal has similarities with ideas put forward by major vaccine manufacturers. Since the Biden administration surprised the industry by backing the waiver in May, companies opposing it have stepped up their lobbying, including arguing that there are more effective alternatives.

The makers of Covid-19 vaccines say they have voluntarily formed 300 partnerships around the world and can produce enough vaccine for all adults this year.

India has suspended vaccine distribution to other countries as the country battles the world’s fastest growing Covid-19 surge. Delay in distribution is hampering the global immunization effort. Photographic illustration: Laura Kammermann

The European proposal would allow the payment of subsidies to develop production. He asks the WTO to monitor export restrictions.

The bloc also said it would be faster to streamline existing WTO rules on trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights, or TRIPS, than to negotiate a new waiver. It proposes to remove the obligation for countries to negotiate with patent holders, contemplates compensation to patent holders that does not result in profit, and allows export to all countries that do not have their own manufacturing capacity. .

“Instead of negotiations that will lead nowhere, it makes more sense to look at the options available to us and on which everyone can agree,” said an EU official.

German Health Minister Jens Spahn, second from right, and South African Health Minister Zweli Mkhize, right, at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases in Johannesburg on May 28.


Photo:

Christoph Soeder / DPA / Zuma Press

Developing countries say TRIPS rules, which allow countries to issue so-called “compulsory licenses” to manufacture drugs in an emergency, are so onerous they are unenforceable. Their proposal also covers more than patents, including other types of intellectual property such as copyrights and trade secrets necessary for manufacturing, which are not covered by the TRIPS Agreement.

The European proposal has been called “hot air” by Mustaqeem De Gama, adviser to the South African mission to the WTO. The ambassador of another developing country said he hoped the WTO would discuss the two proposals separately, to allow consideration of the waiver to progress.

Developing countries have been fighting for eight months to lift intellectual property protections on Covid-19 vaccines. Meanwhile, they say, new production lines could have been set up in their countries, as it looks like the pandemic will drag on for years in the developing world, meaning the waiver is still around. necessary.

World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he supported the waiver and called the current situation “vaccine apartheid”.

The waiver is gaining support at the WTO, with New Zealand and Ukraine announcing their support this week. But the WTO works by consensus, so negotiations are often slow.

Along with the EU, the UK and Switzerland are among the critics of the waiver, although all have said they will consider the proposal.

A US official said the administration was considering the new proposal from developing countries and eagerly awaiting negotiations on the text.

The EU says it exported nearly 300 million doses, or about half of the Covid-19 vaccine produced in the bloc, arguing it did so sooner and more generously than other richer economies. The United States has pledged to share 80 million doses of the vaccine with other countries by the end of June.

Vaccines and patent exemption plan

Write to Saeed Shah at [email protected] and Gabriele Steinhauser at [email protected]

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