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Pressure grows to drop COVID-19 vaccine patent protections as European lawmakers back waiver

June 10, 2021, 9:20 AM UTC

The European Commission became more isolated Thursday morning in its opposition to a patent waiver for COVID-19 vaccines, after the European Parliament backed the waiver.

The temporary suspension of COVID vaccine patents—a move that’s intended to help expand manufacturing and speed up the global vaccination drive, thus shortening the pandemic—was originally proposed by South Africa and India last year. Over recent months, it has gained new supporters like the World Health Organization (WHO), the Pope, and, crucially, the Biden administration.

However, Europe—home to major players such as BioNTech and AstraZeneca—has resisted the waiver. Just last week, the European Commission submitted an alternative plan to the World Trade Organization (WTO), proposing other measures such as limits on export restrictions, and the compulsory licensing of the patents in some circumstances.

That doesn’t go far enough, said members of the European Parliament on Thursday, as it passed an amendment calling for a temporary waiver of the WTO’s TRIPS Agreement, the global intellectual-property rulebook, in relation to COVID-19 vaccines, treatments, and equipment.

The amendment passed by 355 votes to 263, with 71 abstentions. The European Parliament cannot tell the Commission to change its influential tune on the issue, but the vote sent a strong political message nonetheless: Europe, with its many national votes at the WTO, is gradually shifting to the pro-waiver camp.

Within the Parliament—the only EU lawmaking institution whose members are directly elected by citizens—the split over the issue has largely followed left-right lines, with leftists such as the Socialists and Democrats (S&D, Parliament’s second-biggest voting bloc) backing the waiver and those on the right, such as the European People’s Party (EPP, the biggest bloc), opposing it.

“With today’s vote, the European Parliament calls on the Commission to finally do the right thing and save lives by supporting the lifting of patents for COVID-19 vaccines and medical equipment,” said Kathleen Van Brempt, the S&D’s lead negotiator on the subject, in a statement after the vote. “The TRIPS waiver may not prove to be a miracle solution, but it is one of the essential building blocks of a strong global vaccination campaign. Exceptional situations call for exceptional measures.

“The alternative proposal submitted by the European Commission to the WTO falls short in the face of the epochal challenge we are facing,” she added.

But it is not just the European Commission that is becoming more isolated on the issue. Germany, too, is increasingly lonely in its opposition to the waiver.

French President Emmanuel Macron, who has previously sided with Germany, traveled to South Africa a couple of weeks ago to discuss the waiver with President Cyril Ramaphosa. On Wednesday, just ahead of the G7 summit, he flipped and joined the patent-suspension camp. That means at least two G7 leaders (also including U.S. President Joe Biden) now favor the waiver.

Add to that the fact that the WTO agreed on Wednesday to fully debate the waiver—a step that the EU and some other countries had previously resisted—and it seems the tide may be turning.

There is still a way to go, though. World Bank President David Malpass slammed the waiver idea on Wednesday, saying “it would run the risk of reducing the innovation and the R&D” in the pharmaceutical sector. (Malpass, a Trump appointee, is therefore now in opposition to the current White House.)

And remember too that all waiver proposals are not equal: The U.S. is calling for the suspension of vaccine patents only, while South Africa and India—and now the European Parliament—want it to also cover other COVID-19-related medical products such as therapeutics and personal protective equipment.

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