After almost two years, the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over. It is worsening in many parts of the world, particularly in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) where access to vaccines is far from universal. All mechanisms for sharing equitably have so far proven insufficient. Decisive actions need to be taken globally and urgently, to ensure vaccines for all, as a public good. European Union (EU)’s decision-makers have real power to make a difference.
A political opportunity to do so is the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference that started on 30 November. On the agenda is a temporary waiver of intellectual property rights (TRIPS) for COVID-19 vaccines, diagnostics, and therapeutics. If agreed, this proposal has the potential to enable vaccine producers in the developing world to make the jabs that have made such a difference to life in high-income countries. The waiver has been on the negotiating table for over a year and is backed by more than 120 countries, including the entire African continent.
However, the EU has been foremost among WTO members in opposing the waiver and proposing competing solutions, failing to remove barriers to scale up world production. The EU proposal does not meet the unprecedented nature and urgency of the situation and diverts attention from sustainable solutions for the billions still unprotected. It is insisting on compulsory licenses for drug manufacturers – but this system does not facilitate technology transfer or remove lengthy and costly legal procedures, leading to increased inequalities at the expense of LMICs. This is in sharp contrast with EU officials’ repeated statements that “no one is safe until we are all safe” and promises to “create a truly unique, global public good”.
The EU and G7 have centred efforts on donations of vaccines; yet those donation targets seem increasingly implausible. EU institutions and Member States have delivered only 10% of the total it had pledged to share with LMICs. High income countries have more than fair share, as the G20 members received 15 times more COVID-19 vaccine doses per capita than sub-Saharan Africa. The result is that only 6% of people living in Africa are fully vaccinated.
As European faith-based actors working globally, we witness the direct impact of this vaccine divide on local communities and human lives, in the global South and particularly in Africa. Our partners are repeatedly asking for the waiver as one of the crucial actions to help alleviate increasing vaccine inequity. We echo their voices and call for ambitious efforts from the EU’s side. COVID-19 vaccines and other essential technologies, funded by public money, are indeed public goods. With people from all over the world asking for the waiver, the EU, whose foundation is anchored in democratic principles and human rights, should be leading the way.
It has become clear that both voluntary mechanisms and the EU’s approach are not leading to sufficient access to vaccines. While the waiver is not the single solution to vaccine equity – technology and know-how transfer are additional key factors – actors from across the board have repeatedly emphasized that it is a significant legal barrier that must be lifted to open the option to scale up local manufacturing. Several LMIC do have manufacturing capacities but have not been able to contribute in the absence of licensing rights as well as technology transfer.
The EU continues to raise concerns about the possible impact of a patent waiver on pharmaceutical innovation. But it fails to understand that innovation, especially in the context of health crises, is not just driven by financial incentives. Research in medical science is motivated by a desire to save lives and, according to the European commission, social innovation is also the implementation of new ideas to meet social needs and improve human well-being. A temporary waiver can be just that social innovation.
Intellectual property rights are not absolute, notably in this context with innovation being largely financially covered by pre-orders made by States. The EU must balance technical factors with ethical considerations if it genuinely wishes to put an end to this crisis, which has already lasted far too long.
Beyond the impact on human lives, the EU’s continued opposition to a temporary waiver risks lasting consequences for its credibility as an international partner, as already seen in the case of the renewal of the AU-EU partnership. It will be very hard for the EU to build a ‘partnership of equals’ without recognising that the continent can and should produce its own vaccines and medicines.
The time is now for high-income countries to translate their words into actions. Surviving COVID-19 should not be determined by wealth or the charity of others. The obstacles to protecting human lives are known and surmountable. The power to overcome this challenge lies in the hands of global leaders such as the EU. In addition to fulfilling commitments to donations – through COVAX notably -, the 12th WTO Ministerial will be one of the true tests for the EU’s leadership, integrity, and ability to make bold political decisions. We hope it will rise to the challenge.
Floris Faber is Director at ACT Alliance EU, Maria Nyman is Secretary General at Caritas Europa, and Ruth Faber is CEO at EU-Cord.