Europe’s trade chief has called for a rapid increase in global vaccine production as the best way to fight the pandemic, arguing ahead of crunch talks next week against a narrow focus on patent waivers that has been backed by the US.
Valdis Dombrovskis told the FT that the EU’s approach grounded “vaccine response strategies in reality”, and insisted that “the main problem right now relates to lack of sufficient manufacturing capacity”, rather than issues around patents.
The EU, which has exported 250m vaccine doses versus 25m that the US has authorised so far, was blindsided last month when Washington announced it was swinging behind calls for a patent waiver in order to boost global vaccine production and save lives.
That US approach would allow any manufacturer in the world to make “copycat” vaccines without being sued for intellectual property infringement. The cause is being championed within the WTO by India and South Africa, with support from numerous other countries including China, Argentina and Indonesia.
But Dombrovskis said there was still “no concrete proposal from the US on the table and we also don’t have any information that it’s coming”. Instead, “we are putting a concrete proposal from the EU on the table, how we think we can achieve this aim of global vaccine rollout”, he said.
The EU approach, which Brussels will submit to the World Trade Organization next week, focuses on three areas. In documents seen by the FT, it argues for the removal of export restrictions and support for the expansion of production, including through subsidies.
And, third, rather than waive patents, Brussels believes there is enough flexibility in existing intellectual property rules, via the so-called Trips agreement, to allow necessary licensing to take place.
“Intellectual property is not and should not be an obstacle to equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines and therapeutics during the pandemic,” the documents say. “Limited manufacturing capacity, access to raw materials and other inputs are the main bottlenecks.”
While patent waivers are a wide-ranging nullification of intellectual property protection, vaccine licensing allows for patents to be overridden under certain restricted conditions.
Brussels has consistently argued that the debate over patent waivers risks becoming a distraction from more productive avenues for boosting production. The debate is also highly sensitive for the EU, which is home to Covid-19 vaccine makers such as BioNTech.
During WTO talks earlier this week, the US said that it was ready to engage in detailed negotiations, while urging other countries to come forward with proposals that it could endorse. The EU plan is intended to influence discussions at a WTO meeting focused on intellectual property and Covid that takes place on June 8-9.
Dombrovskis said he was, meanwhile, urging EU drugs companies “to engage in arrangements on voluntary licensing and to engage in co-operation agreements with producers also in developing countries to have additional manufacturing capacity”.
The EU trade commissioner said that the main aim of the plan that would eventually be hatched at the WTO was “to work towards ensuring universal, equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines and treatments”.
“So far we are the only major producing region that can credibly say that we have pursued this objective since the beginning of the crisis,” he said.
Referring to other vaccine-producing countries such as the US, he added: “We are glad to see now others starting to catch up, but they would need to do it faster.”