EU invites 'concrete' US plan on lifting vaccine patents

EU invites 'concrete' US plan on lifting vaccine patents

The EU and US are under pressure to share vaccines more equitably with less well-off countries. (AFP Photo)
The EU and US are under pressure to share vaccines more equitably with less well-off countries. (AFP Photo)

PORTO, Portugal: Europe on Saturday passed the ball back to Washington in a debate over Covid vaccine patents, pushing the US for a concrete proposal and a commitment to export much needed jabs.

European Council chief Charles Michel, attending an EU summit in Portugal, said the bloc was ready to discuss a US offer to suspend patent protection on vaccines — once the details are clear.

"We are ready to engage on this topic, as soon as a concrete proposal would be put on the table," Michel said, as EU leaders discussed the issue in Porto.

Michel, who represents the EU's 27 national leaders, cautioned however that the bloc has doubts about the idea being a "magic bullet" in the short term.

The quickest solution to ramp up the distribution of vaccines globally was exports, and the EU encouraged "all the partners to facilitate the export of doses," he said.

France has adopted a similarly sceptical approach — with President Emmanuel Macron saying Saturday that "patents are not the priority" — while Germany is openly hostile to the idea.

As the summit continued, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced that the leaders had approved a contract with the US drugs giant Pfizer/BioNTech for up to 1.8 billion doses of the  patented vaccine.

Influential voices have risen to back the push to waive patents, not least Pope Francis, who on Saturday criticised putting "the laws of the market or intellectual property above the laws of love and the health of humanity".

The World Health Organization, India and South Africa have all called for patents to be temporarily suspended.

The EU leaders' comments came on the second day of an EU summit that was to also feature a bilateral meeting between the EU and India, where authorities on Saturday said the pandemic killed 4,000 people in a single day.

"It misses the point to say that (a patent waiver) is the emergency," Macron said. "The emergency is to produce more and increase solidarity now."

EU is 'pharmacy of the world'

The day before at the summit, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said: "An IP waiver will not solve the problems, will not bring a single dose of vaccine in the short- and medium-term."

EU officials briefing journalists in Brussels on the issue said the hoarding of crucial ingredients needed for vaccines was a larger obstacle.

The United States is not in a position to export Covid vaccine doses to countries in need because of contracts it signed with vaccine-makers preventing their use outside of America, and a Defense Production Act that restricts exports until Americans are vaccinated first.

That contrasts with the EU, which has sent more than 200 million doses abroad — as many as it kept for itself — prompting von der Leyen to describe the bloc as "the pharmacy of the world".

EU officials are worried that Washington's gambit to get around its own blockage by invoking a suspension of patents will end up painting Brussels as a villain if it does not follow suit.

An EU official briefing journalists on the complexities in the issue said on Friday that lifting patents, by itself, "will not fix things".

Technology transfer and upskilling a vaccine-making workforce were also necessary, the official said.

Even if all those elements were in place, it would still take up to a year for a factory to start producing copycat vaccines.

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