Science

WTO: EU and London still skeptical about the lifting of patents on anti-Covid vaccines

The European Union, Great Britain and Japan have maintained their reservations on a possible lifting of patents on anti-Covid vaccines at the WTO, a Geneva-based international trade official said on Monday.

Proposals to start discussions based on specific texts to allow a waiver of intellectual property rights to vaccines against the coronavirus were welcomed at an informal meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) devoted to the section commercial intellectual property rights.

But several member states “continued to express their doubts on the advisability of starting negotiations and asked for more time” to analyze the proposals going in this direction, specified this official speaking on condition of anonymity.

These countries are those of the EU as well as Australia, Japan, Norway, Singapore, South Korea, Switzerland and Taiwan. Agreements within the WTO must be supported by consensus of all 164 member states.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks after visiting a Pfizer group factory in Puurs, Belgium, April 23, 2021 (POOL / AFP / Archives – JOHN THYS)

South Africa and India are leading a campaign to relinquish intellectual property rights to coronavirus vaccines, so that each country can produce doses.

These two countries presented a revised proposal in this direction, which received the support of 63 member states at the WTO. In addition to the lifting of patents on vaccines, this proposal wants to extend it to treatments, diagnostic tests, medical devices and protective equipment, as well as to the material and components necessary for the manufacture of vaccines.

This exemption from intellectual rights must last for at least three years, before the General Council of the WTO eventually decides to extend this period, according to the text of this proposal.

But differences persist over whether, and to what extent, the protection of intellectual property rights prevents an effective fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.

They also concern the possibility of using or improving the flexibilities already existing in the agreement on the trade aspect of intellectual property of the WTO, known by its acronym TRIPS.

In a Covid-19 vaccination center in Bombay, May 26, 2021 (AFP / Archives - Punit PARANJPE)

In a Covid-19 vaccination center in Bombay, May 26, 2021 (AFP / Archives – Punit PARANJPE)

Questions also remain on the duration and the deadline of such a waiver of intellectual property rights, further explained this official.

Pakistan, Argentina, Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia and Kenya are some of the countries wishing to start negotiations, he added.

In contrast, the EU said the priority was rather to increase production and lift restrictions on the export of vaccine components.

Switzerland, where there are many pharmaceutical companies, believes that the WTO should rather explore the flexibilities already existing within the TRIPS agreement before giving it up completely.

The United States has said it is open to opening negotiations on any proposal to find a solution to the current vaccine shortage. China for its part has indicated its desire to move forward on this file, the initial proposal on this subject having been submitted last October.

US President Joe Biden at a press conference on the Covid-19 vaccination campaign in Washington on April 21, 2021 (AFP / Archives - Brendan Smialowski)

US President Joe Biden at a press conference on the Covid-19 vaccination campaign in Washington on April 21, 2021 (AFP / Archives – Brendan Smialowski)

A new TRIPS council meeting will take place on June 8-9.

More than 1.9 billion doses of the anti-covid vaccine have already been injected worldwide, according to an AFP count. But only 0.3% of that total was administered in the 29 poorest countries in the world, yet home to 9% of the world’s population.

Advocates of the lifting of vaccine patents believe that it will significantly increase production in the poorest countries.

The rich countries and their pharmaceutical industries have always opposed it but their positions have evolved in favor of a change in attitude of the United States, now ready to consider this lifting of patents. Several countries including France seemed to join this position.

Patents on anti-Covid vaccines “should in no way be a brake” on the immunization of populations, French President Emmanuel Macron said last Friday during a visit to South Africa.

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