European Parliament and Commission clash on temporary waiver of Covid-19 vaccine patents

European Parliament and Commission clash on temporary waiver of Covid-19 vaccine patents
A production line at Pfizer Puurs in Antwerp. Credit: Pfizer

The European Parliament called for the temporary lifting of intellectual property rights protection for Covid-19 vaccines to improve global access to the vaccine and to address global production constraints and supply shortages, in contradiction with the Commission's stance.

On Thursday morning, the Parliament announced MEPs had voted in favour of negotiations for a temporary waiver of the World Trade Organisation's (WTO) TRIPS Agreement, which came into effect on 1 January 1995, and is the most comprehensive multilateral agreement on intellectual property to date.

"Voluntary licencing (when the developer of the vaccine decides to whom and under what conditions the patent can be licensed to enable manufacturing), know-how, and technology transfer to countries with vaccine-producing industries are the most important way to scale and speed up global production in the long term," according to MEPs.

Any decision on waiving intellectual property rights would, however, be taken by the WTO TRIPS Council, which was in session with the Commission on 8-9 June, and of which the proposal did not include a waiver.

The Commission has argued that producing countries should, first of all, reduce their restrictions on the export of their vaccines and treatments and safeguard their supply chains, and that simply wavering patents would not be a solution to ensure global access to the vaccine.

"Vaccine production requires know-how, technology, skilled personnel, infrastructure. You don't get there by simply waving Intellectual Property rights. It's by collaboration and if needed, compulsory licensing that you enhance technology transfer. The patent doesn’t tell the whole story," Ursula von der Leyen, Commission President, said during a European Parliament Plenary meeting.

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Instead, the Commission has argued for compulsory licences, which would allow 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, which von der Leyen said would be "a legitimate tool to scale up production."

Together with the WTO, Europe has started working on an initiative to clarify and simplify the use of compulsory licencing in times of national emergency, however according to MEP Kathleen Van Brempt, who piloted the text through Parliament, the Parliament is calling on the Commission to change its tactic.

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