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An outbreak of the new Omicron coronavirus variant in Southern Africa is boosting critics of the EU, who say that Brussels is preventing a quick roll-out of jabs across poor nations by zealously defending vaccine patents.
The European Commission always knew that this was going to be a tough week, in which its trade officials risked being politically isolated as Big Pharma’s top allies in a debate over waiving intellectual property on vaccines at a World Trade Organization summit 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 that they are suddenly off the hook. Quite the reverse. Advocates of wider vaccine access are immediately leaping on the new variant and the cancellation of the WTO event as evidence that rich countries cannot hope to beat the virus unless developing nations have blanket vaccination too.
The People’s Vaccine, a coalition of over 50 organizations calling for vaccines to be freely available and IP restrictions lifted, made the link between the postponement of this week’s WTO meeting and the need to allow wider use of big companies’ medical recipes.
“This wasn’t inevitable,” the coalition said in a statement reacting to the cancelation. “The vaccine apartheid that rich countries and the WTO have refused to address is ultimately responsible for the decision to postpone vaccine talks.”
Because of Omicron-related restrictions, many African delegates would not have been able to fly in 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 sweeping intellectual property waiver on vaccines, but the EU is the biggest trade power — backed by the U.K., Switzerland and Canada — up against the waiver. The debate is a long-running one: Rich nations say patent protection is vital to ensure that Big Pharma continues to pour cash into research and innovation, while developing countries argue that excessive and overlong patents prevent cheap access to cures.
“The rise of the Omicron variant must finally let the European Commission see the light: We won’t get out of this pandemic unless the whole world has access to affordable vaccines,” said Sara Matthieu, a lawmaker for the Greens in the European Parliament. “Europe has to urgently put people’s health above pharma profits and support the … waiver now. The postponement [of the WTO summit] is no excuse for inaction, as variants will continue to emerge.”
Gordon Brown, former British prime minister and now World Health Organization ambassador for global health financing, struck a similar note in an opinion piece in the Guardian. “Our failure to put vaccines into the arms of people in the developing world is now coming back to haunt us. We were forewarned — and yet here we are,” he wrote.
Data from Johns Hopkins University puts South Africa’s vaccination rate at only 24 percent of the population, compared with just under 70 percent in France and Germany. The argument of those campaigning against restrictive patents is not only humanitarian but also stresses that the global economy is less likely to be knocked off course by shocks like Omicron if vaccines are made universal.
The WTO summit planned for this week was widely viewed as a critical test of the institution’s credibility. Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala wanted to secure a compromise on dropping patents on coronavirus jabs as a key way to show that the moribund trade body could still act as a relevant global force. Last week, she called on countries to drop the “all-or-nothing” attitude and strike a deal in Geneva.
While the summit has been postponed, negotiations will continue.
Europe talked a good game in the past few days and even hinted at a softening in its stance but, in reality, nothing has changed in its fundamental position, meaning that the Commission is likely to face increasing flak over Omicron.
EU trade chief Valdis Dombrovskis last week took to the Financial Times to write that the EU would favor a “targeted waiver” on vaccine IP, but people briefed on the EU’s position said this referred only to the long-standing position from Brussels that it would support steps to ease the process of forced licensing of IP, which is an existing provision in the WTO’s so-called TRIPS agreement on IP.
Compulsory licensing means a country can permit a company to produce a drug without consent from the patent-holder, and usually happens only during a medical emergency. Such a step is not only rare and legally fraught, but also falls well short of the full-scale waiver that India and South Africa want.
Behind closed doors, the Commission has been more adamant that it’s not budging.
Last week, some European countries asked Brussels to show more flexibility in Geneva, according to notes from an EU ambassadors’ meeting on Wednesday, seen by POLITICO. But the Commission insisted that it would stand its ground. A broad waiver on intellectual property rights is a no-go, according to both the EU ambassadors’ meeting notes and several officials involved in the negotiations.
Meanwhile, the European Parliament is ramping up pressure on the Commission, with lawmakers approving a resolution in support of a time-limited waiver for intellectual property. Kathleen Van Brempt from the center-left Socialists and Democrats group said: “Europe must stop blocking the temporary waiver on intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines and start sharing its mRNA technology, the data on production and the vaccines patents to ensure we can boost the production and distribution of vaccines to all in need.”
Everything comes down to America
Even if the European Commission did have a sudden change of heart and swung round to the European Parliament’s position, trade ministers from the national capitals wouldn’t sign off on a waiver, several EU diplomats said.
Trade ministers had been poised to gather on Monday to give the Commission its final political steer for the Geneva summit, and draft conclusions obtained by POLITICO leave no flexibility for the Commission on the waiver. They state that the response to the pandemic “should also include enhancing and simplifying the use of flexibilities available under the TRIPS agreement.” That means compulsory licensing. Nothing more.
A lot will come down to what the U.S. will do, EU diplomats said.
Until now, Washington hasn’t moved forward with a vaccine proposal in Geneva, despite its open expression of support for an IP waiver for vaccines earlier this year, which U.S. President Joe Biden reiterated on Friday, saying the new variant showed “the importance of moving on this quickly.”
The EU’s hope is that Washington, despite its public support for the waiver, will keep up its traditional backing for IP in practice.
But so far, the U.S. side hasn’t given any indication of its game strategy in the weeks ahead.
“They hold the cards,” one of the diplomats said. “If they side with South Africa and India with some sort of waiver, this risks going wrong for the EU.”
Sarah Wheaton and Ashleigh Furlong contributed reporting.
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