Grudging support for suspending COVID-19 vaccine patents from Europe

May 11, 2021: European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen expressed willingness to explore a waiver of patents on COVID-19 vaccines after US President Joe Biden on May 5, 2021, promoted the plan, reversing the previous US position. France and Italy support this view, but Germany has opposed it. And most European comment has been to attack the United States and the UK for refusing to export any COVID-19 vaccines produced in their territory.

The EU, which is among the biggest producers of vaccines in the world, is also the main exporter, with 200 million doses already shipped outside the bloc.

The pharmaceutical industry – apart from Moderna - strongly opposes the temporary waiver of intellectual property rights on COVID-19 products that was originally proposed by South Africa and India in October 2020, and is now supported by over 100 members states of the World Trade Organisation.

Big Pharma argues that a patent waiver would change nothing because developing countries don’t have the technology and skills to produce safe versions of the vaccines. However, the Serum Institute of India has been contracted to produce the bulk of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine, and a US plant in Baltimore managed to contaminate ingredients for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, causing the dumping of about 15 million doses.

Another argument from some EU officials argue that it could take two years to agree on the waivers in the World Trade Organization (WTO), most likely making it irrelevant to the current pandemic.

However, WTO Director-General Dr Ngozi told member states that she "warmly welcomed" the US move. "We need to respond urgently to COVID-19 because the world is watching and people are dying," she said.

World Health Organization (WHO) chief Dr Tedros reached for capital letters in a tweet calling Biden's move a "MONUMENTAL MOMENT IN THE FIGHT AGAINST #COVID19," and said it reflected "the wisdom and moral leadership of the United States."

Big Pharma controls production and prices through its 20-year patents and through any licencing such as that with the Serum Institute of India. A licensing agreement is voluntary and involves a vaccine developer sharing patents and technology with a manufacturer. Governments can force developers to share their licenses – compulsory licencing – but these are case-by-case processes that take too long.

A temporary waiver of WTO rules would speed up the process because any company looking to manufacture COVID-19 vaccines would be free to do so without having to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies.