Emmanuel Macron has echoed the German government’s concerns over Joe Biden’s proposed suspension of intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines as he urged the US and the UK to instead start exporting doses around the world.
Arriving at an EU summit in Porto in Portugal, the French president expressed his reservations about the White House proposal to waive patents and criticised the lack of exports coming from “Anglo-Saxon” countries.
“What is the current issue?” he asked. “It is not really about intellectual property. Can you give intellectual property to laboratories that do not know how to produce and will not produce tomorrow? The main issue for solidarity is the distribution of doses.
“Today, the Anglo-Saxons block many of these ingredients and vaccines,” he said. “Today, 100% of the vaccines produced in the United States are for the American market.”
Neither the UK or the US has a formal export ban but Washington has deployed the Defense Production Act to force manufacturers to fulfil domestic contracts ahead of other orders while the British government’s contract with AstraZeneca also prioritises UK requirements.
A waiver on vaccine patents would allow pharmaceutical companies to make copycat vaccines without fear of legal action by manufacturers such as Pfizer and AstraZeneca.
The proposal was aired by Biden’s top trade adviser, Katherine Tai, on Wednesday. Her claim that the “extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures” forced a public statement from the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, in which she said she was “open” to discussing the issue.
Speaking in Porto, Von der Leyen took a bullish approach, in a sign of the frustration felt at the US approach. She said: “We should be open to this discussion but when we lead this discussion there needs to be a 360 degree view on it as we need vaccines now for the world. In the short and the medium term the IP waiver will not solve the problem, will not bringing a single dose of vaccine in the short and medium term.”
She added: “We invite all those who engage in the debate of waivers of IP rights also to join us to commit to export a large share of vaccines being produced in that region.”
But within the European Commission – which had only been informed shortly before the announcement of Biden’s proposal – and among the EU’s 27 member states there are serious reservations.
The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, had already rejected the US idea, warning that “production capacities and the high-quality standards, not the patents” is the problem facing the world and that a “waiver” would have “serious implications”.
“The protection of intellectual property is a source of innovation and it must remain so in the future,” she had said on Thursday.
BioNTech, a German company, owns a patent on a vaccine jointly developed with the US company Pfizer which uses the latest mRNA technology.
On Friday the Canadian government said it was also willing to discuss the idea but emphasised the need to foster entrepreneurial innovation. “Canada has actively worked with partners to identify barriers to vaccine access many of which are unrelated to intellectual property, such as supply chain constraints,” Canada’s trade minister, Mary Ng, said. “Our government firmly believes in the importance of protecting IP [intellectual property] and recognises the integral role that industry has played in innovating to develop and deliver life-saving Covid-19 vaccines.”
EU officials said they had not yet seen the details of Biden’s proposal but there was “no proof on the table” that the vaccine patents held by manufacturers had been restricting supply around the world.
The newly appointed director-general of the World Trade Organization, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a Nigerian economist, echoed the sentiment on Friday, adding that while Africa was importing 99% of its vaccines patents “may not be the critical issue”.
She said the WTO was aiming for a “pragmatic solution that assures access to developing countries to deal with vaccine inequity, while at the same time making sure we don’t disincentivise research and innovation”.
There is growing frustration in Brussels and European capitals that the US is seeking to take the high ground given that EU-based manufacturers have exported 200m of doses while the White House has put a block on vaccines leaving its shores.
“I would be delighted if the United States shows the same willingness to export vaccines that we in Germany do,” Germany’s health minister, Jens Spahn, said on Friday.
EU leaders are expected to discuss their position on a patent waiver at this weekend’s summit in Porto, with the 27 member states divided on the best way to proceed. A qualified majority will have to be found for a position which the commission will take into negotiations with the US and other members of the WTO.
“We have not been given a single example where capacity has been restricted because of the protection of patent or other intellectual property rights,” one EU official said. “If that was the case … we already have the instruments that will allow us to react to that question”.
Officials said that an alternative would be for members of the WTO to apply for “compulsory licences” where a government permits a local manufacturer to produce a product or process without the consent of the patent owner for domestic consumption.
Alternatively, a government could apply for compulsory licence to export to a country that lacks the manufacturing facilities to provide for its domestic market. “The urgency now is what is the best pragmatic solution to use manufacturing capacity and produce as many vaccines as possible in the short term,” the EU official said.