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Pressure builds on EU to back WTO vaccine-patent waiver

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MEPs have backed a motion demanding the temporary lifting of intellectual properties rights for Covid-19 vaccines – a symbolic move that puts pressure on the European Commission to change its position on the issue of global access to vaccines.

EU lawmakers adopted the resolution on Wednesday (9 June) with 355 in favour, 263 against, and 71 abstentions – with the results published Thursday.

The proposal, backing the temporary waiver of patent rules of Covid-19 vaccines, reached a majority thanks to the support of the Socialists and Democrats, the Greens/EFA, The Left and a group of liberal MEPs.

Notably, the centre-right European People’s Party voted against it.

India and South Africa, supported by a large group of developing countries and international organisations, demanded in October 2020 a temporary waiver of intellectual property rights for the vaccines and treatments.

In May, the administration of US president Joe Biden also decided to support the initiative.

EU lawmakers adopted an amendment put forward by the Greens in favour of a “proactive, constructive and text-based negotiations for a temporary waiver of the WTO [World Trade Organization] TRIPS Agreement, aiming to enhance global access to affordable Covid-19-related medical products and to address global production constraints and supply shortages”.

“We can only tackle this pandemic together and this [vote] is a huge step for ensuring that vaccines are globally accessible,” said Green MEP Anna Cavazinni.

For his part, left-wing MEP Martin Schirdewan noted that six months ago this kind of formal support to a patent-waiver would have been “unthinkable”.

The TRIPS agreement sets out international rules governing patents, binding for all the 164 countries in the WTO. Any change would require unanimity.

As of June, approximately 1.7 billion vaccine doses have been administered worldwide, of which 28 percent went to G7 countries and 0.3 percent to low-income countries.

EU opposition

The EU Parliament’s resolution counters the plan that the commission submitted to the WTO last week – dubbed as “the third way” and based on existing flexibilities within the TRIPS agreement.

The EU executive said on Thursday that it had taken note of the position of MEPs, and it is currently analysing it.

While the EU says it is open to discussing the proposal, the 27-nation bloc, home for many big pharmaceutical firms, is not convinced that this would provide “the best immediate response” to improve global access to vaccines.

In their resolution, EU lawmakers also acknowledged that voluntary licensing (when vaccine-makers and developers enter a licensing and manufacturing partnership with producers in developing countries to expand production), know-how and technology transfer to less developing countries are “the most important way” to scale up global supplies in the long term.

Overall, there are more than 280 partnerships already identified, including with manufacturers in a number of developing countries such as India and South Africa, the commission said.

The EU and its member states pledged to spend €1bn to increase manufacturing capacity in Africa.

Meanwhile, MEPs pointed out that both the US and the UK should “immediately abolish their export ban on vaccines and raw materials required of the production of vaccines” – a call previously made by the EU Commission and Council.

Until now, the EU has exported more than 245 million vaccines to 46 different countries – accounting for about half of the total amount of vaccines produced in Europe. It has also pledged to donate 100 million doses to low and middle-income countries by the end of the year.

By contrast, the US has produced more than 333 million doses of vaccines and exported about three million doses, according to the London-based research firm Airfinity.

All eyes on July’s meeting

In a breakthrough in efforts to ease patent rules temporarily, WTO members agreed on Wednesday to move to a text-based negotiation process on the existing patent-waiver proposals – in a bid to reach a consensus for the next meeting.

“Time will show how this will develop,” the chair of the TRIPS Council in the WTO, Dagfinn Sørli told EUobserver.

The next meeting is scheduled for 21-22 July. However, some analysts predict that the discussion might last for months.

It is estimated that 11 billion doses are needed, in order to immunise 70 percent of the world’s population.

Over the weekend, G7 countries will discuss ways to increase vaccine production worldwide at their summit in Cornwall, UK.

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