Covid-19 vaccines: MEPs clash on proposed waiver of patents 

Some of the speakers during the debate  

MEPs disagreed about whether the EU should support proposals to lift patents for Covid-19 vaccines in a plenary debate on 19 May.

The debate came after the US administration announced in early May that it would back a temporary waiver of intellectual property rights with regard to vaccines and medical products against Covid-19. South Africa and India had proposed the measure in October 2020 and the issue is being discussed within the World Trade Organization. About 60 countries around the world have voiced support.

Global responsibility

Proponents say a waiver of intellectual property rights could improve global access to affordable vaccines and other medical products. Many MEPs pointed out the importance of the EU acting as a global leader.

“It is true that over the years the current model has helped us to achieve economic and health progress, however, with more than three million people already dead from the pandemic, we now need extraordinary solutions,” said S&D group chair Iratxe García Pérez (Spain). “The European Union has to do its utmost to help these poor countries, which are unable to manage on their own. We are talking about an objective which is not only humanitarian but also geostrategic.”

Philippe Lamberts (Greens/EFA, Belgium) said: “At the moment, hundreds of millions of people still don’t have access to vaccines that could save their lives, because they’re not born in the right place. (…) Europe needs to consider vaccines as a global common good, where the quantity and the prices cannot be left in the hands of three or four big pharmaceutical companies.”

“How have we come to this? Today, yet again, we are discussing the waiving of patents on vaccines. This should have been clear right from the start,” said Manon Aubry (The Left, France). “Millions of lives are at stake and your inaction is killing people.”

Other measures could prove more effective, say MEPs

Other speakers in the debate said that the waiver of patents was not going to produce quick results at the global level and proposed alternative routes to help struggling countries.

Esther de Lange (EPP, the Netherlands) said that the EU has exported almost as many vaccines as it has kept for its own use. “We need barriers to the export of materials and vaccines to be lifted, especially by countries such as the UK and the US. Donations must be increased. Production needs to be ramped up drastically here, but also in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The EU should in particular help Africa produce vaccines itself. The knowledge needed to produce vaccines needs to be transferred and shared.”

Dacian Cioloş (Renew Europe, Romania) said that the US proposal to waive patents on vaccines does not 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.” He stressed the need for the US to support the Covax initiative that aims to provide low and middle-income countries with access to tests, therapies and vaccines.

Roman Haider (ID, Austria) expressed doubts that developing countries would be able to produce vaccines at a faster pace than Western countries, China and Russia. “So we are not really gaining any time nor any additional doses of vaccines by waiving the intellectual property rights,” he said, calling the proposal "an attack against property, in this case intellectual property rights".

Geert Bourgeois (ECR, Belgium) said: "The waiver of patents is what we call a false good idea. (...) Nobody has been able to demonstrate that the waiver of patents will lead to a speed up and increase of vaccines. Vaccine production is highly complex; production and quality control take so many years to set up that waiving patents will have no effect in 2021. The real solution lies is in bringing about a drastic increase in production here and it would appear we are succeeding in doing that."

Speaking on behalf of the Portuguese Council presidency, Augusto Santos Silva said that the EU was willing to discuss concrete proposals on intellectual property rights for vaccines. However, he said that the current international framework is already flexible and provides for compulsory licensing that can allow exports to countries lacking manufacturing capacity.

Commission Executive Vice-President Valdis Dombrovskis said: "Europe's responsibilities do not end at our borders. We have always been mindful of the need for global solidarity and we have demonstrated our solidarity with meaningful action because no-one is safe until everyone is safe.

"Ramping up production and sharing vaccines wider, faster and at an affordable cost is the single most effective way to fight the pandemic across the world in this critical moment."

On 10 June MEPs adopted a resolution backing a temporary waiver of patents for Covid-19 vaccines and arguing this should improve global access to affordable vaccines and help address supply shortages.