EU needs to mobilise, make vaccines available globally

The virus respects no boundaries, so neither should the fight against it.

By Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelliy

Published: Mon 10 May 2021, 11:10 PM

It might not be the most pragmatic approach for immediate aid, but a World Trade Organisation (WTO) proposal to waive patent protection on Covid-19 vaccines and assist less affluent nations has put the spotlight where it belongs — on humanity itself.

The virus respects no boundaries, so neither should the fight against it. As a European Union conference last weekend considered a potential waiver of vaccine intellectual property (IP) rights, it became clear that nationalism and profits for Big Pharma have no place in discussions about how to get assistance to countries such as India and Brazil, which along with 100 other countries made the WTO proposal.

The EU meeting in Porto, Portugal came at a perfect time to discuss the IP waiver, starting as it did just after US President Joe Biden and Pope Francis endorsed the idea.

In a speech to a global fundraising concert to promote access to vaccines, the Pope said the world was infected with the “virus of individualism”.

“A variant of this virus is closed nationalism, which prevents, for example, an internationalism of vaccines,” he said. The Pope’s call came as India continued to set new global records in daily infections.

In mid-April, Italian investigative journalist, screenwriter and TV presenter Andrea Purgatori was the very first in Italy to talk about the necessity and “the courage” of easing patent protections on Covid-19 vaccines.

Through his long-running television show Atlantide he launched a hashtag campaign for a vision of social justice: #BrevettiLiberi (free patents). “Are vaccines a political weapon to be left in the hands of few? Or are they the only possible weapon to beat this pandemic and save humanity?” he asked.

Purgatori said that the Paris Convention on IP protection has a clause for “compulsory licensing of patents”. It is intended to assure that patent rights will not be abused. Signed in 1883, then revised several times and last amended in 1979, the Paris Convention treaty has 177 contracting member countries, which makes it one of the most widely adopted treaties worldwide. Purgatori read from the Article 31: “This requirement (of use without authorisation of the right holder of patent) may be waived by a member in the case of a national emergency or other circumstances of extreme urgency or in cases of public non-commercial use.”

The issue has again drawn attention to the sharp divide between affluent and poor citizens of the planet. Some have better access to long-term wellbeing in shelter, food and clean water, but also in the immediate prospect of continued life itself. Heart-rending scenes of overwhelmed health systems and widespread fatalities should be a clarion call to action.

In an April report to the World Health Organisation (WHO), Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said over 87 per cent of the vaccines produced had gone to high income or upper middle-income countries, while low income countries received just 0.2 per cent. He stressed another glaring disparity: “On average in high-income countries, almost one in four people has received a vaccine. In low-income countries, it’s one in more than 500,” the WHO head said. “Let me repeat that – one in four versus one in 500.”

The rapid development of Covid vaccines and their unequal application shows the best and worst of mankind. We can rally and rush to the rescue, yet only if there is sufficient payment and the well-connected are served first. Though taxpayer funding helped finance R&D on Covid vaccines, some world leaders are protesting that IP protection — and profits — for Big Pharma should be sacrosanct. The divide was evident in Portugal last weekend as some EU leaders said a patent waiver is out of the question. German Chancellor Angela Merkel came out strongly against the proposal, while other countries in the EU such as France, Italy and Poland initially signalled support.

After first voicing some support for a patent waiver, French President Emmanuel Macron later said the most pressing obstacle to vaccinations is distribution.

“What is the problem right now?” he asked. “It isn’t really intellectual property protection. Can we really entrust laboratories that don’t know how to produce (these vaccines) with this intellectual property and expect them to be producing tomorrow?”

Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi, whose foreign minister Luigi Di Maio had commended the White House for the proposal earlier in the week, said it was more important that the US and UK governments remove blocks on exports.

“Before getting to the liberalisation of vaccines, other simpler things should be done, such as removing the export block that today the US firstly and the UK continue to maintain,” he said. “The fact of liberalising the patents, even temporarily, does not guarantee the production of the vaccine.”

Neither the UK nor 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.

European Council president Charles Michel, who chaired the summit in Portugal, said the EU was open to discussion within the WTO on the waiver proposal but noted the bloc has doubts that lifting IP is the “magic bullet” in the short term. He encouraged “all the partners to facilitate the export of doses”.

As the waiver became a non-starter in Porto last weekend, EU leaders looked to other ways to assist India, including resuming trade talks that stalled in 2013. Via a video conference, EU member states also told Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi that the bloc will immediately provide more than 100 million euros worth of emergency aid in the form of oxygen, ventilators and medication for India’s Covid-19 response.

That seems a drop in the bucket given the overwhelming human disaster unfolding in India. The EU, the US and the UK are going to have to do a lot more. Instead of defending intellectual rights, they need to mobilise to help get shots in arms across the world and they need to get moving now. Humanity and history are watching.

Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are journalists based in Milan

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