EU’s Michel says US vaccine patent waiver will not solve supply problem

The president of the European Council has said the Biden administration’s calls for vaccine patent waivers will not be a “magic bullet” for poorer countries needing access to live saving-jabs as EU leaders showed a united front in demanding more exports from richer countries.

Speaking after the first day of an EU leaders meeting in Porto, Charles Michel on Saturday said the bloc was willing to discuss “concrete” US proposals on intellectual property rights for vaccines, but warned that Europe “doesn’t think that in the short term that it is a magic bullet”.

Echoing calls from other senior EU figures, Michel urged others to follow Europe’s lead to “make exports possible”.

His comments came after France’s president Emmanuel Macron sought to turn the tables on Washington accusing “Anglo-Saxon” countries of hindering global supplies of jabs and calling the debate over intellectual property a sideshow compared to existing barriers to the export of vaccines and ingredients.

“Today, the Anglo-Saxons block lots of these ingredients and vaccines,” Macron said ahead of the summit on Friday. “What is the real issue right now? It is not really about intellectual property. You can give the intellectual property to laboratories that do not know how to produce it.”

Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, said she was willing to engage in the discussion over IP waivers, but added that other vaccine-producing regions needed to follow the EU and permit a big chunk of their production to be exported.

The EU has exported approximately 200m vaccine doses so far, a similar number to those delivered to its own citizens, said von der Leyen. By contrast, few vaccine shots have left the US.

EU leaders will hold virtual talks with India’s prime minister Narendra Modi this afternoon after Delhi, along with South Africa, led the global charge for sweeping waivers for jabs and other vaccine-related materials at the World Trade Organization.

Europe’s response comes days after President Joe Biden’s top trade adviser, Katherine Tai, said the US would support a waiver of intellectual property protections for Covid-19 vaccines. Such a move would allow pharmaceutical manufacturers to make “copycat” vaccines without fear of being sued for infringing intellectual property rights.

The Biden administration’s proposal wrongfooted the EU and prompted a frosty response from leading member states including Germany, home to the pharmaceutical company BioNTech, which together with Pfizer makes one of the leading Covid-19 vaccines.

Macron said he backed the calls for a debate over intellectual property and “it should be possible to lift it but in a limited way”. This position won wide support among fellow leaders in Porto who discussed the matter for the first time on Friday evening, said diplomats.

The EU has argued that other constraints, such as export bans and the limited availability of raw materials, are having a more decisive impact than patent protections on the world’s ability to increase vaccine production.

“We have not been given a single example where [production] capacity has been restricted because of the protection of patents or other IP rights,” said one commission official.

EU officials said Washington had given the EU advance notice of the patent move shortly before it was made public on Wednesday, but that there was no consultation or attempt to co-ordinate positions. “If you ask me what needs to happen next, the first thing is that the US explains exactly what they mean with the announcement they made — we have not seen anything but a very general statement,” said an official.

“Whether there is a waiver or not a waiver, the problem goes well beyond that,” said a commission official earlier on Friday, citing issues including the need to keep supply chains open — with mRNA vaccines drawing on 280 components sourced from 19 countries.

Another issue, according to the official, was that access to patents was not the same as acquiring the knowledge to make a vaccine. Approximately 80 to 100 patents were involved in the creation of an mRNA vaccine, the official said, adding that even access to all of them “doesn’t give you the overview how to produce the vaccine, for that you need the know how and the technology”.

Brussels also argues that existing international agreements on intellectual property already offer some flexibility on sharing vaccine IP, including possibilities for compulsory licensing.

The EU has resisted the push led by India and South Africa at the WTO. Brussels is concerned that it will face international pressure to shift position in the talks at the WTO, currently scheduled for early June, although a meeting could be organised this month, according to trade officials.

A senior Biden administration official said there was now a chance for the WTO to come together to deliver solutions that help save lives. “We will continue to ramp up our efforts — working with the private sector and all possible partners — to expand vaccine manufacturing and distribution around the world and increase the raw materials needed to produce those vaccines.”

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