EU leaders have given short shrift to a proposal by Joe Biden and backed by the pope to waive Covid-19 vaccine patents as a way to increase supply, insisting that the White House should instead allow the export of doses and of the key ingredients.
At a summit in Porto, a series of European leaders, including those who had previously appeared open to suspending intellectual property rights, said Biden’s idea was not a priority and expressed frustration at the US president’s attempt to claim the moral high ground.
Italy’s prime minister, Mario Draghi, whose foreign minister, Luigi Di Maio, had commended the White House for the proposal earlier in the week, said it was more important that the US and UK governments remove blocks on exports.
“Before getting to the liberalisation of vaccines, other simpler things should be done, such as removing the export block that today the US firstly and the UK continue to maintain,” he said.
“This, I would say, is the first thing to do. The fact of liberalising the patents, even temporarily, does not guarantee the production of the vaccine.”
Neither the UK nor the US has a formal export ban but Washington has deployed the Defense Production Act to force manufacturers to fulfil domestic contracts ahead of other orders while the British government’s contract with AstraZeneca also prioritises UK requirements.
On Wednesday Biden’s top trade adviser, Katherine Tai, had said that given a shortfall in vaccine production around the world, the World Trade Organisation should back a waiver on vaccine patents, which would allow pharmaceutical companies to make copycat vaccines without fear of legal action by manufacturers such as Pfizer and AstraZeneca.
Pope Francis offered his backing for the idea on Saturday, criticising those putting “the laws of the market or intellectual property above the laws of love and the health of humanity”.
But Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, has rejected the proposal, saying it would dampen entrepreneurial innovation. BioNTech, a German company, owns a patent on a vaccine jointly developed with the US company Pfizer which uses the latest mRNA technology.
She doubled down her opposition on Saturday and put the onus on the US to play a larger role in supplying the world.
“I do not think that a patent waiver is the solution to make more vaccines available to more people,” she said. “Rather, I think that we need the creativity and the power of innovation of companies, and to me, that includes patent protection.”
Merkel said innovation should not be “weakened such that no rapid adaptations for virus variants can be found”.
“The problem is not that people are sitting on their patents and not taking action,” she added.
“Now that a further part of the American population has been vaccinated, I hope that we can come to a free exchange of components and an opening of the market for vaccines.”
The European Council president Charles Michel, who chaired the summit in Portugal, said the EU was open to discussion within the WTO on the proposal but that the bloc had doubts that patent waivers were the “magic bullet” in the short term and encouraged “all the partners to facilitate the export of doses”.
France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, also declared that “patents are not the priority”.
“I call very clearly on the United States to put an end to export bans not only on vaccines but on vaccine ingredients, which prevent production,” he said.
“The key to producing vaccines more quickly for poor countries and developing countries is to produce more, to lift export bans.”
At the summit, the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, announced a contract with drugs giant Pfizer/BioNTech for up to 1.8bn doses of their patented vaccine had been concluded.
The contract allows the EU to donate doses contained within the contract and Von der Leyen said Europe was proving to be the world’s “pharmacy”.
She said: “Those regions who are producing vaccines at large scale should share these vaccines through export and, again, I can only repeat we are the only democratic region in the world producing vaccines at large scale and exporting.”