European Parliament strongly backs WHO effort for equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines

July 15, 2020: In an overwhelming vote on July 10, 2020, the European Parliament supported a World Health Organization initiative to create the Technology Access Pool (C-TAP), which would collect patent rights, regulatory test data, and other information that could be shared for developing drugs, vaccines, and diagnostics to combat Covid-19 and ensure they are accessible to all..

The World Health Assembly voted unanimously in May to set up the voluntary system to address concerns that some Covid-19 medical products may not be accessible for poor populations, because patent rules grant  20 years of monopoly prices on new medicines. However, the US government, influenced by pharmaceutical companies,   disassociated itself from the operative clauses on patents.

The European Commission and many EU states are yet to embrace the WHO initiative and the European parliament’s vote – 526 in favour, 105 against and 50 abstentions – puts significant pressure on them to join in.

Under World Trade Organisation rules, a government may grant a license to a public agency or a generic drug maker, allowing it provide a cheaper version of a patented medicine without the consent of the brand-name company that owns the patent.

The International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations and many pharma executives opposed the WHO project. They have a history of defending their 20-year monopolies, and have tried to entrench and extend them through bilateral and regional trade agreements.

Jaume Vidal, senior policy advisor for European projects at Health Action International, told the Knowledge Ecology International advocacy group that the resolution strives for access that “will not be a EU-first or U.S.-only affair, but a global, universal one.”

The European Parliament resolution calls for a European Health Union with a budget of US$10.5 billion, to set minimum standards for quality healthcare in response to the pandemic, and for a European Health Response Mechanism to be created and rapidly to respond to all types of health crises through better coordination and management of strategic reserves of medicines and medical equipment.

The vote reflects mounting anxiety that too many fractured efforts will emerge as individual countries seek to secure Covid-19 medical products, and seeks to ensure equitable access for all.