At an informal EU summit in Porto, the European heads of government were reasonably unanimous in their opinion: patents are not the cause of the current scarcity of vaccines in Africa, Asia and Latin America. In order to help poorer countries in the short term, the rich West must donate more of its vaccines. “Releasing patents is not the panacea,” said EU president Michel Saturday after the EU summit.
Prime Minister Rutte stated that ‘some caution’ is required with the American suggestion. He fears that pharmaceutical companies will produce fewer vaccines if they are no longer able to open branches worldwide – helped by the property rights. ‘Giving away patents sounds great, but that doesn’t mean billions of extra vaccines for Africa.’
European Commission President von der Leyen stressed that the EU is the world’s largest vaccine exporter. Of the 400 million doses made in Europe, half went to 90 countries outside the EU. The US, on the other hand, bans the export of vaccines that are produced in America, and the United Kingdom does not deliver. “The EU is the world’s pharmacy,” said von der Leyen. “Where are the Anglo-Saxons?” Sulked French President Macron.
Washington’s call earlier this week to release the patents took the EU by surprise. Brussels was not informed in advance of the proposal. Chancellor Merkel immediately turned against the proposal, Germany is the home country of, among others, the successful vaccine manufacturer BioNTech. EU leaders see the US call as a publicity move to divert attention from the US export ban on vaccines. Only Spain and (to a lesser extent) Italy are sympathetic to it.
The EU sees more benefit in removing export blockades
The EU will ask Washington what exactly it wants with the patents. EU officials point out that the rules of the World Trade Organization WTO already provide the option to suspend patents. This is also regularly used when medicines are scarce. However, corona vaccines are high-tech products with over 200 ingredients. A new manufacturer can do little with the patent alone: knowledge for manufacturing, highly trained personnel and, above all, production capacity is needed. All potential locations are in use according to Brussels. That’s why leaders focused on removing export barriers, donating vaccine doses to poor countries and expanding existing factories.
Leaders are concerned that the release of the patents on the successful mRNA vaccines (BioNTech-Pfizer, Moderna) will help China. The mRNA technique has largely been developed in Europe and shows great promise in many areas, including cancer research. Giving that lead away to China is not only against the pharmaceutical companies but also the EU leaders.
Von der Leyen informed leaders that negotiations with BioNTech-Pfizer on a mega order of 1.8 billion doses have been completed. The doses will be delivered in 2022-2023 and are intended for vaccination of young people, for booster shots and as a stock against new variants.
The conditions for the new order are stricter than in the contract already concluded with BioNTech-Pfizer for the delivery of 600 million doses this year. For example, the supply is now fixed per month (instead of per quarter) to provide more certainty for the Member States. In addition, stricter sanctions have been included in case BioNTech-Pfizer does not meet its obligations. So far, BioNTech-Pfizer has been delivering on time, unlike the British-Swedish AstraZeneca.
At the end of this month, at an additional EU summit, leaders will discuss the vaccination passport, a European QR code that should facilitate travel for people who have been vaccinated, are immune to corona after a previous infection or have a valid negative PCR test. Rutte expects the required EU law to enter into force on June 21, after which the member states will have six weeks to implement the card. The Prime Minister hopes that the introduction will go faster, otherwise the card will be too late for many Dutch holidaymakers.