The Omicron variant is a sad reminder that global health solidarity has not succeeded. It’s time for the EU to support a temporary suspension of COVID-19 vaccine patents.
The new variant reveals once again the true danger of the world vaccine divide, the COVID-19 pandemic being far from over two years after its beginning, hitting the most vulnerable more strongly. 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, and who are facing drastic consequences due to emerging variants. 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's decision-makers have real power to make a difference.
A political opportunity to do so could have been the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference that should have started on 30th November, with a temporary waiver of intellectual property rights (TRIPS) for COVID-19 vaccines, diagnostics, and therapeutics on the agenda. It has been postponed indefinitely due to the outbreak of a new strain of the COVID-19 virus. We encourage urgent discussions on the issue. If agreed, this proposal would have the potential to enable vaccine producers in the developing world to manufacture 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's proposal line of action 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 approach is also at odds with the position of the European Parliament who called for the EU to actively participate in negotiations on a temporary waiver in June and once again this last week.
The EU and G7 continue to centre efforts on donations of vaccines; yet those donation targets seem increasingly implausible and rely heavily on smooth delivery and distribution. EU institutions and Member States have delivered only 10% of the total it had pledged to share with LMICs. The result is that only 7% of people living in Africa are fully vaccinated and few have received the first dose. The advent of the Omicron variant further highlights the fragility and inequity of a model relying on few production centres.
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 worldwide, nor to safety and a return to normality. While the waiver is not the single solution to the pandemic, actors from across the board have repeatedly emphasized that it is a significant legal barrier that must be lifted 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 – despite the onset of a highly infectious new variant – 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 countries in the global South can and should produce their 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 still ongoing WTO negotiations on the waiver are a true test for the EU’s leadership,and integrity. EU leaders should be able to make bold political decisions to allow vaccine production to scale-up, especially in those countries now facing the most imminent threat of new variants. 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.