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An outbreak of the new variant of the Omicron coronavirus in southern Africa is spurring critics in the EU, who say Brussels is preventing a rapid rollout of jabs in poor countries by zealously defending vaccine patents.
The European Commission always knew this was going to be a tough week, during which its trade officials risked being politically isolated as Big Pharma’s main allies in a debate over waiving vaccine intellectual property during a summit of the World Trade Organization in Geneva.
Ultimately, the WTO summit had to be postponed because of Omicron, but that doesn’t mean EU diplomats can breathe a sigh of relief at being suddenly off the hook. Quite the contrary. Advocates of wider access to vaccines immediately jump on the new variant and the cancellation of the WTO event as proof that rich countries cannot hope to defeat the virus unless developing countries also have general vaccination.
People’s Vaccine, a coalition of more than 50 organizations calling for the free availability of vaccines and the lifting of intellectual property restrictions, linked the postponement of this week’s WTO meeting to the need to allow a wider use of large business medical revenues.
“It was not inevitable,” the coalition said in a statement reacting to the cancellation. “The vaccine apartheid that rich countries and the WTO have refused to deal with is ultimately responsible for the decision to postpone vaccine talks.”
Due to Omicron restrictions, many African delegates would not have been able to make it to the lakeside summit in Geneva, so the meeting was delayed indefinitely.
Rich versus poor
India and South Africa are leading the charge for a radical waiver of intellectual property on vaccines, but the EU is the biggest trading power – backed by the UK, Switzerland and Canada – against the waiver. The debate is long-drawn-out: rich countries say patent protection is vital to ensure that big pharmaceutical companies continue to invest money in research and innovation, while developing countries argue that excessive and too long patents prevent cheap access to treatment.
“The rise of the Omicron variant must finally allow the European Commission to see the light of day: we will only get out of this pandemic if the whole world has access to affordable vaccines”, said Sara Matthieu, lawmaker for the Greens in Parliament. European. “Europe must urgently put people’s health above pharmaceutical benefits and support the… waiver now. The report [of the WTO summit] is no excuse for inaction, as variations will continue to emerge.
Gordon Brown, former British Prime Minister and now World Health Organization Ambassador for Global Health Funding, made a similar note in a Guardian opinion piece. “Our failure to get vaccines into the arms of people in the developing world now comes back to haunt us. We were warned – and yet we are there,” he wrote.
Data from Johns Hopkins University puts South Africa’s vaccination rate at just 24 percent of the population, compared to just under 70 percent in France and Germany. The argument of those campaigning against restrictive patents is not only humanitarian, but also points out that the global economy is less likely to be sidetracked by shocks like Omicron if vaccines are made universal.
The WTO summit scheduled for this week has been widely seen as a critical test of the institution’s credibility. Managing Director Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala wanted to reach a compromise on dropping coronavirus vaccine patents as a key way to show that the dying business body could still act as a relevant global force. Last week, she called on countries to abandon the “all or nothing” attitude and strike a deal in Geneva.
While the summit has been postponed, negotiations will continue.
Europe has played well in recent days and even hinted at easing its stance but in reality nothing has changed in its fundamental stance meaning the Commission is likely to face growing criticism from Omicron.
Last week, EU trade chief Valdis Dombrovskis spoke to the Financial Times to write that the EU would support a “targeted waiver” of vaccine intellectual property, but people briefed on the EU position said that this only refers to Brussels’ long-standing position that it supports measures to facilitate the process of compulsory licensing of intellectual property, which is an existing provision of the EU. WTO TRIPS Agreement on Intellectual Property.
Compulsory licensing means that a country can allow a company to produce a drug without the consent of the patentee, and this usually only happens in a medical emergency. Such a step is not only rare and legally burdensome, but it is also far short of the large-scale waiver desired by India and South Africa.
Behind closed doors, the Commission was more adamant that it was not budging.
Last week, some European countries asked Brussels to show more flexibility in Geneva, according to notes from a meeting of EU ambassadors on Wednesday, seen by POLITICO. But the Commission insisted it would keep its promises. A broad exemption from intellectual property rights is prohibited, according to meeting notes from EU ambassadors and several officials involved in the negotiations.
Meanwhile, European Parliament steps up pressure on Commission, with lawmakers approving resolution in favor of time limit waiver of intellectual property. Kathleen Van Brempt of the Center-Left Socialists and Democrats said: “Europe must stop blocking the temporary exemption to intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines and start sharing its mRNA technology, the data on vaccine production and patents to ensure that we can boost vaccine production and distribution to all who need it.
It all comes down to America
Even if the European Commission changed its mind and sided with the European Parliament, trade ministers in national capitals would not approve a waiver, several European diplomats have said.
Trade ministers were set to meet on Monday to give the Commission its final political direction for the Geneva summit, and the draft conclusions reached by POLITICO leave the Commission no flexibility on the waiver. They say the response to the pandemic “should also include improving and simplifying the use of flexibilities available under the TRIPS Agreement.” It means compulsory license. Nothing more.
Much will depend on what the United States does, European diplomats have said.
Washington has so far not moved forward with a vaccine proposal in Geneva, despite its open support for an intellectual property waiver for vaccines earlier this year, which US President Joe Biden reiterated on Friday, saying that the new variant showed “the importance of moving forward quickly.
The EU hopes that Washington, despite its public support for the waiver, will maintain its traditional support for intellectual property in practice.
But so far the US side has given no indication of its playing strategy in the coming weeks.
“They hold the cards,” said one of the diplomats. “If they side with South Africa and India with some kind of waiver, it might turn out badly for the EU.”
Sarah Wheaton and Ashleigh Furlong contributed reporting.
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