The European Union is pushing back hard against U.S.-backed calls to temporarily waive intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines, preparing a rival plan that officials said would better safeguard drug companies’ patents and look for other ways to boost supplies for developing countries.
As the gap between vaccine haves and have nots has widened, Washington and China have endorsed a proposal by developing countries at the World Trade Organization to suspend patent protections for the immunizations.
Brussels’ alternative plan would lift export restrictions on vaccines and their raw materials, expand manufacturing capacity around the world, and make it easier for countries to use existing rules to override patents in some cases, according to documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.
The EU’s stance makes a quick deal on the waiver proposal less likely, and could sink it altogether, trade experts say.
EU officials said they would present the proposal at the WTO next week, when members are also set to debate the waiver. They argue that removing patents won’t do much to help increase production in the short term and would remove incentives for pharmaceutical companies to do further work, such as updating vaccines for virus mutations.
“The rules-based global trading system can contribute to ensure a rapid expansion of production and equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines and therapeutics,” says the draft of the EU plan.
European leaders are already trying to further elements of the plan. French President
and Germany’s health minister,
traveled to South Africa last week to hold talks and offer funding to increase the production of Covid-19 shots on the continent.
South Africa and India are leading more than 60 countries that say IP rights held by pharmaceutical companies are preventing them from producing Covid-19 vaccines locally at a time when they say rich countries have bought up much of this year’s supply.
Their current proposal at the WTO includes a three-year waiver of IP for drugs and testing technologies to treat the infected and prevent further spread. The U.S. and China haven’t explicitly endorsed that part of the plan.
Africa currently imports 99% of the vaccines it needs and has administered less than 2% of the Covid-19 shots given globally.
The EU proposal has similarities to ideas put forward by leading vaccine makers. Since the Biden administration surprised the industry by backing the waiver in May, companies opposed to it have stepped up their lobbying, including by arguing that there are more effective alternatives.
Covid-19 vaccine manufacturers say that they have voluntarily forged 300 partnerships around the world, and can produce enough vaccines for all adults this year.
The European proposal would allow for subsidies to be paid to expand production. It calls for the WTO to monitor export restrictions.
The bloc also says it would be quicker to streamline the WTO’s existing Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, or TRIPS, rules than negotiate any new waiver. It proposes removing requirements for countries to negotiate with patent holders, envisages compensation to patent holders that entails no profit, and allows for export to any countries that lack their own manufacturing capacity.
“Instead of negotiations which will not lead anywhere, it makes more sense to look at the options we have available on which everybody can agree,” said an EU official.
Developing nations say TRIPS rules, which permit countries to issue what are known as “compulsory licenses” to manufacture medicines in emergencies, are so cumbersome that they are unworkable. Their proposal also covers more than patents, including other types of intellectual property such as copyrights and trade secrets needed for manufacturing, which aren’t covered by the TRIPS agreement.
The European proposal was described as “hot air” by one trade official of a developing country. The ambassador of another developing nation said he hoped the WTO would discuss the two proposals separately, to allow the consideration of the waiver to progress.
Developing nations have battled for eight months to lift intellectual property protections over Covid-19 vaccines. In that time, they say, new production lines could have been set up in their countries, while it appears the pandemic will drag on for years in the developing world, meaning that the waiver is still needed.
World Health Organization chief
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
says he supports the waiver and has described the current situation as “vaccine apartheid.”
The waiver is gaining support at the WTO, with New Zealand and Ukraine this week announcing their backing. But the WTO works on consensus so negotiations are often slow.
Along with the EU, the U.K. and Switzerland are among the critics of the waiver, although all have said they would examine the proposal.
A U.S. official said the administration is reviewing the new proposal from developing countries and looks forward to negotiations on the text.
The EU says it has exported nearly 300 million doses, around half of the Covid-19 vaccine produced in the bloc, arguing it did so earlier and more generously than other richer economies. The U.S. has pledged to share 80 million vaccine doses with other countries by the end of June.
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