The European Commission defended using compulsory licences rather than lifting patents on Covid-19 vaccines on Wednesday, calling the United States’ stance in favour of the latter “a nice media stunt.”
“Whatever respect one may have for [US President] Joe Biden, this announcement on the lifting of patents is just a nice media stunt, given that the United States exports almost no vaccines or vaccine components,” said Frédérique Ries (MR, Renew Europe).
Ries called for encouraging knowledge sharing and technology transfer, as well as the establishment of production facilities, especially in Africa.
“Compulsory licences are a perfectly legitimate tool in the context of a pandemic,” said Commission Vice-President Valdis Dombrovskis, in charge of trade, during a debate in the European Parliament on lifting patents.
Dombrovskis argued that licences can support increased vaccine production and knowledge sharing.
A compulsory licence allows public authorities to take away a patent holder’s choice to refuse to license his or her invention in certain cases – and public health is one of them. This imposition is then accompanied by financial compensation for the patent holder.
Dombrovskis has announced that a proposal to this effect will be submitted to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in July.
Other proposed solutions could also include limiting export restrictions (the US and UK are targeted with this, though not named directly), increasing production and producer commitments, investing in production capacity in developing countries and increasing contributions to the Covax programme, which aims to ensure equitable access to vaccination in 200 countries.
The vast majority of MEPs criticised the US and UK for piling up excessive doses while poorer countries have little or no access to them.
But on the idea of a temporary waiver of patent rights (IPR), MEPs were divided.
Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that in the short and medium term, lifting patents would not provide an extra dose of vaccine.
“The EU can be proud of exporting 50% of its vaccine production, but it would be shocking and undignified to continue to see it block the suspension of patents at international level, which would allow a rapid increase in production,” said Greens/EFA co-chair Philippe Lamberts (Ecolo).
Lamberts stressed that pharmaceutical factories exist all over the world, and said he had fears regarding the EU’s desire to “preserve the profit margins of big pharma rather than human life.”
On the other hand, Geert Bourgeois (N-VA, CRE group) saw it as a “false good idea” that would not speed up the supply of vaccines and would harm innovation.
Bourgeois stressed that intellectual property rights were the result of intensive, time-consuming and costly research, guaranteeing tens of thousands of jobs.
He advocated increased production and the need for the Commission to enter into agreements with developing countries to export vaccines and provide human and logistical support for vaccination.
The Brussels Times