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An outbreak of the new Omicron coronavirus variant in southern Africa is mounting critics of the EU, who say Brussels is preventing a rapid rollout of jabs across poor nations by zealously defending vaccine patents.
The European Commission always knew this was going to be a tough week, with its trade officials risking political isolation as Big Pharma’s top ally in a debate on renouncing intellectual property rights to vaccines at a World Trade Organization summit in Geneva.
In the end, the WTO summit had to be postponed because of Omicron, but that does not mean that EU diplomats can breathe a sigh of relief that they are suddenly off the hook. Quite the opposite. Proponents of wider vaccine access immediately jumped on the new variant and the cancellation of the WTO event as proof that rich countries cannot hope to beat the virus unless developing countries also have a general vaccination.
The People’s Vaccine, a coalition of more than 50 organizations calling for vaccines to be freely available and IP restrictions lifted, linked the postponement of this week’s WTO meeting to the need to allow wider use of large corporations. medical prescriptions.
“This was not inevitable,” the coalition said in a statement responding to the cancellation. “The vaccine apartheid that rich countries and the WTO have refused to address is ultimately responsible for the decision to postpone the vaccine negotiations.”
Due to Omicron-related restrictions, many African delegates would not have been able to fly in to the Geneva summit, so the meeting was delayed indefinitely.
Rich against poor
India and South Africa are leading the charge of a comprehensive exemption from intellectual property rights on vaccines, but the EU is the largest trading power – backed by Britain, Switzerland and Canada – against the waiver. The debate is long-running: Rich nations say patent protection is crucial to ensuring that Big Pharma continues to pour money into research and innovation, while developing countries argue that excessive and too long patents prevent cheap access to cures.
“The blossoming of the Omicron variant must finally let the European Commission see the light: we will not get out of this pandemic unless the whole world has access to affordable vaccines,” said Sara Matthieu, Green’s legislator in the European Parliament. “Europe needs to put people’s health immediately over drug profits and support … the exemption 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 the World Health Organization’s Ambassador for Global Health Financing, made a similar note in a opinion polls and the Guardian. “Our inability to put vaccines in the arms of people in developing countries is now returning to haunt us. We were warned – and yet we are here,” 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 from 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, whose vaccines are made universal.
The WTO summit scheduled for this week was widely seen 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 an important way to show that the dying trade organization could still function as a relevant global force. Last week, she urged the countries to drop the “all-or-nothing” attitude and reach an agreement in Geneva.
While the summit has been postponed, negotiations will continue.
Europe has been playing a good game over the last few days, even hinting at a softening in its stance, but in reality nothing has changed in its basic stance, meaning the Commission is likely to face an increasing whiff of Omicron.
EU Trade Chief Valdis Dombrovskis last week took to the Financial Times to write that the EU would advocate a “targeted exemption” for vaccine IP, but people who were briefed on the EU’s position said that this only referred to Brussels’ long-standing position that it would support steps to facilitate the process of forced licensing of IP, which is a existing provision in the WTO’s so-called TRIPS agreement on IP.
Compulsory licensing means that a country can allow a company to manufacture a drug without the consent of the patent holder, and this usually only happens during a medical emergency. Such a move is not only rare and legally filled, but also falls far short of the full-scale dispensation that India and South Africa want.
Behind closed doors, the Commission has been more convinced that it will not be shaken.
Last week, some European countries asked Brussels to show more flexibility in Geneva, according to notes from an EU ambassador meeting on Wednesday, seen by POLITICO. But the Commission insisted it would stand firm. A broad waiver of 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 increasing the pressure on the Commission, as legislators approve a resolution in support of a time-limited dispensation for intellectual property. Kathleen Van Brempt of the center-left Socialists and Democrats group said: “Europe must stop blocking the temporary waiver of intellectual property rights to COVID-19 vaccines and start sharing its mRNA technology, production data and vaccine patents to ensure “that we can boost the production and distribution of vaccines to anyone in need.”
Everything comes down to America
Even if the European Commission had a sudden change of heart and swung to the European Parliament’s position, trade ministers from the national capitals would not sign a waiver, several EU diplomats said.
Trade ministers were ready to meet on Monday to give the Commission the final political direction for the Geneva summit, and draft conclusions obtained by POLITICO leaves no flexibility for the Commission with regard to the exemption. They state that the response to the pandemic “should also include improving and simplifying the use of the flexibility available under the TRIPS Agreement.” That means compulsory licensing. Nothing more.
Much will come down to what the United States will do, EU diplomats said.
So far, Washington has not gone ahead with a vaccine proposal in Geneva, despite its open expression of support for an IP exemption for vaccines earlier this year, as US President Joe Biden repeated Friday and said the new variant showed “the importance of getting on with this quickly.”
The EU’s hope is that Washington, despite its public support for the derogation, will maintain its traditional support for IP in practice.
But so far, the US side has not given any indication of its game strategy in the coming weeks.
“They have the cards,” said one of the diplomats. “If they side with South Africa and India with some form of dispensation, it risks going wrong for the EU.”
Sarah Wheaton and Ashleigh Furlong contributed reporting.
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