Suspending vaccine patents not a solution to supply shortage, say EU leaders

Bloc leaders urge Biden to lift export restrictions to have a global impact on crisis

French president Emmanuel Macron said ‘the Anglo-Saxons block many of these ingredients and vaccines’. File photograph: Christophe Petit Tesson/EPA/

European Union leaders have rejected a call by the United States to suspend intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines at a meeting in Portugal, arguing that this would not fix a shortage of supply.

“We don’t think, in the short term, that it’s the magic bullet,” said European Council President Charles Michel at the event.

EU leaders have pointed to tight US controls on exports that have prioritised vaccination of the domestic population before sharing doses overseas, in contrast to EU global exports that have equalled the quantity of doses supplied within the bloc.

"Today, the Anglo-Saxons block many of these ingredients and vaccines," French president Emmanuel Macron said on arrival to the summit. "Today, 100 per cent of the vaccines produced in the United States are for the American market."


He argued that patent protections are not the cause of the bottleneck in global vaccine supply, which has also been affected by shortages of vaccine components.

“What is the current issue?” Mr Macron asked. “It is not really about intellectual property. Can you give intellectual property to laboratories that do not know how to produce and will not produce tomorrow? The main issue for solidarity is the distribution of doses.”

The proposal from the administration of US president Joe Biden has put EU capitals on the back foot by fuelling momentum for a move strongly opposed by the large European pharmaceutical industry.

The call was welcomed as a “monumental moment in the fight against Covid-19” by the World Health Organization chief Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, and has been backed by Pope Francis in a video message to vaccine equity initiative Vax Live: The Concert to Reunite the World.

“A variant of this virus is closed nationalism, which prevents, for example, an internationalism of vaccines,” Pope Francis said. “Another variant is when we put the laws of the market or intellectual property above the laws of love and the health of humanity.”

The EU has backed a “third way” to increase the supply of vaccines, under which pharmaceutical companies would co-operate to set up additional manufacturing sites through voluntary licensing agreements.

EU officials have said that they support the aim of increasing global supply but that waiving intellectual property rights would not be effective in doing this quickly, noting that readying factories for production takes 12 months even with the co-operation of pharmaceutical companies.

“A patent doesn’t tell you how to produce this vaccine. For that, you need to have access to the know-how and the technology,” an EU official said.

“If we want to be fast, if we want to go from where we are to an increase of the output, the co-operation with those that have the know-how is essential.”

Some agreements to increase production have already been made, involving licensing while retaining protection of the patents, a route already followed by vaccine producer AstraZeneca.

There have also been manufacturing agreements between pharmaceutical companies to increase production, including between Sanofi and Pfizer, and Novartis and Johnson & Johnson.

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times