Member states of the EU are set to discuss proposals to waive intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines after the idea was backed by the US.
There are mixed views on the issue among member states, with some arguing that merely waiving intellectual property rights will not affect vaccine manufacturing capacity as limits on trained staff, production facilities, and ingredients are also constraining supply.
"The EU is also ready to discuss any proposals that addresses the crisis in an effective and pragmatic manner," European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said in a speech to the European University Institute in Florence.
“That’s why we are ready to discuss how the US proposal for a waiver on intellectual property protections for Covid-19 vaccines could help achieve that objective.”
The comments represent a shift in position as the commission chief previously expressed opposition to the idea, telling the New York Times she was “not at all a friend of releasing patents” and expressing concerns about the impact on future innovation.
The pharmaceutical industry argues that the right to exclusive use of medical breakthroughs for a period is essential to pay for the investment that led up to it and to incentivise future research. Member states with large pharmaceutical industries have backed up this argument.
However, supporters of the intellectual property waiver view the backing of the administration of US president Joe Biden as a watershed, and it has led to other key figures expressing their support.
Dutch trade minister Sigrid Kaag welcomed the US backing for the proposal as a “good sign”, while French president Emmanuel Macron said that he was “absolutely in favour”.
Until now the EU position has been to support a "third way" proposed by World Trade Organisation chief Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, under which intellectual property would remain protected, while pharmaceutical companies agree to transfer technology through licensing agreements.
This position was reflected in comments from the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment Leo Varadkar on Thursday, when he likened an intellectual property waiver to sharing a recipe without providing the kitchen, cooking skills or ingredients.
An EU official said the co-operation of pharmaceutical companies through the WTO “third way” route “could create production chains and supply chains in Africa”.
“Western, eastern Africa, and South Africa… you have possibilities to have production there, and the private sector is working on this,” the official said.
EU national leaders will discuss the issue on Friday at a meeting in Porto in Portugal, which some are attending in person and others joining remotely due to concerns about Covid-19 infection rates.
Many will face domestic pressure to back the intellectual property waiver, which supporters argue will help end the pandemic by increasing the manufacturing supply of vaccines and allow poorer countries greater access to the jabs.
The World Health Organisation director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus described the Biden administration's backing as "a monumental moment" in the pandemic fight.
Following the announcement human rights organisations Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Public Citizen called on Covax, the internationally-backed effort to distribute vaccines to low and middle income countries, to publish its contracts with vaccine developers and facilitate the sharing of intellectual property.