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World EU willing to discuss waiving vaccine patents

20:01  06 may  2021
20:01  06 may  2021 Source:   bbc.com

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The European Union has said it is willing to discuss a US-backed proposal to waive patents on Covid-19 vaccines.

  EU willing to discuss waiving vaccine patents © Reuters

It marked a shift in position from the EU, which has previously opposed the waiver. But some member states went further, with France's president among those to give it their full support.

Supporters say the plan will allow more manufacturers around the world to produce the life-saving vaccines.

But opponents, including drug makers, say it may not have the desired effect.

They have argued that lifting patent protections would not solve the problem, and could lead to quality issues and less efficient production, as well as hurting future innovation.

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The idea was originally proposed by India and South Africa, who have been leading a group of about 60 countries at the World Trade Organization (WTO) - an intergovernmental body that promotes global commerce - pushing for the last six months for patents on vaccines to be set aside.

They have met with strong opposition from the previous US administration of Donald Trump, the UK and the EU.

But the proposal has gained momentum this week, after the US backed it..

"Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures," said US Trade Representative Katherine Tai.

What did the EU say?

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Thursday said the EU was "ready to discuss any proposals that address the crisis in an effective and pragmatic manner".

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"That's why we are ready to discuss how the US proposal for a waiver on intellectual property protections for Covid-19 vaccines could help achieve that objective," she said.

"In the short run, however, we call upon all vaccine producing countries to allow exports and to avoid measures that disrupt supply chains."

Ms von der Leyen has previously spoken out about her opposition to lifting intellectual property rights. She told the New York Times newspaper just weeks ago that she was "not at all a friend of releasing patents", and argued that the pharmaceutical industry should be rewarded for its innovation.

a man wearing glasses: Ursula von der Leyen said the EU was © EPA Ursula von der Leyen said the EU was "ready to discuss any proposals that address the crisis in an effective and pragmatic manner".

Member states have also shifted their positions on the patent issue, but divisions remain.

French President Emmanuel Macron said he was now "absolutely in favour" of the plan.

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In a social media post, Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio said Europe should not miss the opportunity and be courageous.

Germany meanwhile has aligned itself more closely with the EU position, with Foreign Minister Heiko Maas telling reporters: "It is a discussion that we're open to."

In a tweet on Thursday, EU Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton said: "Now that vaccine production is on its way to reach our targets, it's time to open a new phase, as planned: address the patents issue to [increase] global production in years to come."

The issue is set to be on the agenda at a two-day EU meeting that begins on Friday, according to a senior official quoted by AFP news agency.

Meanwhile, outside of the EU, Russian President Vladimir Putin also said he supported the idea of a waiver.

What exactly is intellectual property?

Intellectual property describes creations, such as inventions, which are protected by patents, copyrights and trademarks. These prevent copying and allow the originator to be financially rewarded.

Patents give innovating firms a short-term monopoly on production to cover the costs of development and encourage investment.

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Biotech firms argue that such protection has provided incentives to produce Covid vaccines in record times.

What is the debate?

Many developing countries have argued that rules requiring countries to protect patents and other forms of intellectual property are an obstacle to increasing the production of vaccines and other products needed to tackle the pandemic.

Calls for a vaccine patent waiver come as lower income countries face acute vaccine shortages.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the WHO, called the US's decision on Wednesday "historic" and said it marked "a monumental moment in the fight against Covid-19".

Medical NGO Doctors Without Borders said the move would "increase sufficient and timely access to these lifesaving medical tools as Covid-19 continues to ravage countries across the globe."

But opponents, particularly from the industry, have said it will not solve the problem.

The head of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations, Thomas Cueni, told the BBC's Today programme he was "deeply concerned" that "you could compromise the quality and safety of vaccines which we see now".

"The bottlenecks right now are trade barriers, preventing companies from moving their goods from one country to another. It is shortages and scarcity in the supply chains, which need to be addressed. And it is also right now the disappointing unwillingness of rich countries to early share doses with the poor countries.

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"None of this is addressed with the patent waiver," he added.

Some experts say pharmaceutical companies would also need to share know-how, such as production techniques, with poorer countries to have any real beneficial effect.

graphical user interface © BBC

Nobody is protected until everyone's protected: on that world and business leaders are agreed.

But pharmaceutical companies have called the decision by the US to back the sharing of secret recipes for vaccinations shortsighted, claiming it is understanding the production process that is the real challenge, particularly when it comes to the new breed of mRNA vaccines - such as Pfizer and Moderna - as well as the availability of raw materials. It is, they say, akin to handing out a recipe without sharing the method or the ingredients, and could lead to quality issues and less efficient production

Instead, the UK and the EU have favoured a system of licensing, whereby knowhow is shared and there is more oversight. It is already being done on some cases on a voluntary basis - such as the tie up between Oxford Astrazeneca and the Serum Institute of India. And that licensing can be made compulsory, although the pharmaceutical companies could then be eligible for compensation.

Some trade specialists have speculated that the US might be hoping that, by backing a lifting of patents, manufacturers might be more open to sharing expertise voluntarily - or at least, for a reduced charge.

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This is interesting!