Brussels (Brussels Morning) The European Parliament’s Development Committee approved the suspension of patents on COVID-19 vaccines and treatments yesterday. The decision comes a month after it had rejected the move to suspend intellectual property (IP) waivers for India and South Africa.
The vote was approved in a motion to tackle the AIDS epidemic, which included a demand for waiving IP rights on COVID-19 vaccines.
“After months of intense campaigning, the Left group in the European Parliament has won a decisive victory in the global fight to remove patents’ barriers and make vaccines a common good”, the Left’s Co-President, Manon Aubry, declared.
With yesterday’s vote, Parliament is “sending a clear message to the Council and the Commission”, Aubry said, noting that the two institutions had been “persistently opposing” the proposal mooted by India and South Africa in the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
“It is now time for them to stop defending Big Pharma profits above people’s lives”, Aubry stated.
Parliament’s U-turn followed the “extraordinary measures” by the US to suspend IP rights on COVID-19 patents. Despite approval of the waiver, some MEPs remained reluctant about the decision.
MEP Dacian Cioloş (Renew Europe) claimed the US proposal to waive patents on vaccines failed to address the real problems.
“[US President] Biden doesn’t present timely answers — waiving patents is a long and complex procedure. What we actually need to do is to send help to poor people now”, Cioloş said. Moreover, he added, the US should support the COVAX initiative to provide low and middle-income countries with access to tests, therapies and vaccines.
MEP Roman Haider (ID) was doubtful that developing countries would be able to produce vaccines at a faster pace than Western countries, or China and Russia.
“So we are not really gaining any time or any additional doses of vaccines by waiving the intellectual property rights”, Haider said, describing the proposal as “an attack against property, in this case IP rights”.
In a parallel meeting on 20 May, MEPs in the International Trade Committee discussed the issue with WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who pointed out that “getting a patent waiver was not enough”.
“The IP waiver is a hot issue on which I cannot take sides. But we need more flexibility and automatic access for developing countries, and at the same time we have to protect research and development”, Okonjo-Iweala maintained.
The WTO chief identified three other approaches, including cutting back on export restrictions and reinforcing supply chains for vaccines; working with manufacturers to expand production (including countries with idle capacity such as Indonesia, South Africa, Thailand, or Bangladesh); and, simply transferring the necessary technology and expertise to produce the complicated vaccines.Okonjo-Iweala briefed the parliamentarians on various WTO-related negotiations now underway in the run-up to the Twelfth Ministerial Conference later this year, where WTO reform, trade and health will feature.