Why is the European Union blocking Vaccine Equality?
The World Trade Organization (WTO) TRIPS Council meeting (4 Oct) will be another opportunity for world governments to save millions of lives by agreeing to waive intellectual property protections on Covid-19 vaccines and treatments, the so-called TRIPS Waiver. An opportunity that is likely to be missed – again – because the EU continues to side with corporate interests.
Exactly a year ago, India and South Africa put forward a proposal in the WTO for a temporary waiver of intellectual property rights in order to increase the production and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines and treatments. Their reasoning, no one is safe until everyone is safe.
Close to 80% of vaccine doses have gone to people in high- and upper-middle-income countries. On average only 4,4% of the population in Africa has been vaccinated with half of the countries on the continent vaccinating less than 2% of their population. This disparity is causing avoidable deaths and could lead to the emergence of new variants that may undermine vaccination progress.
Worldwide pressure has forced some governments to end their objections. Last May, President Biden announced support for TRIPS Waiver. In September, Australia joined the US in backing the waiver at the upcoming TRIPS Council. In turn, the European Parliament has voted twice, in May and June, to support TRIPS Waiver. The Commission however continues to buy time to maximise the profits of the European pharmaceutical industry, contradicting promises at the beginning of the pandemic that Covid-19 vaccines and treatments would be a ‘global public good’. This leaves the EU, and the UK, as the main opponents of vaccine equality and obstacles to the end of the pandemic.
Here are three reasons why the EU’s arguments against TRIPS-waiver do not hold water:
1 – Supply of vaccines through the COVAX mechanism has failed
Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has been keen to emphasise the EU’s donations to COVAX, a mechanism established by the World Health Organization (WHO) along with others, for equitable vaccine distribution, especially to developing countries.
The EU has promised 200 million vaccines to the COVAX mechanism. However, only 6 million doses have been donated so far.
The COVAX mechanism, while laudable, has simply not been able to satisfy the demand for vaccines at the pace that is necessary to save lives. Furthermore, as we’ve learned from the AIDS epidemic, fighting global epidemics cannot be done through charity. It requires real collaboration between countries, open technology and the building of local capacities.
By hoarding vaccines the EU has contributed to sidelining of COVAX. The mechanism aimed at distributing 2 billion vaccine doses by the end of 2021. It has so far distributed only 311 million. Meanwhile, the EU has signed vaccine supply agreements for a staggering 4.5 billion vaccine doses, the equivalent of 10 doses per EU inhabitant.
2 – EU’s bilateral aid is used to support the expansion of Big Pharma and maintain monopolies
At the last State of the European Union (SOTEU) address, Commission President von der Leyen said that “Team Europe is investing one billion Euro to ramp up mRNA production capacity in Africa,” adding that “This is an investment in solidarity – but also in global health.”
However, the EU has also said that Europe intends to become the leading vaccine-producing continent, and “the pharmacy of the world.”
The EU’s intention is to facilitate the expansion of European multinationals to developing countries with hefty public subsidies. The modes of production will remain at the hands of big European pharmaceutical corporations like Sanofi and BioNTech, which will gain a foothold in new developing countries’ markets while increasing the dependency of local populations.
Rather than establishing European bases in these countries, many developing countries and middle-income countries have their own vaccine development capacities that need to be encouraged so they can face current and future health threats on their own terms. This ‘sharing of technologies’ as touted by the EU does not entail the waving of intellectual property rights but rather lucrative business deals for the European pharmaceutical sector.
3 – Compulsory licenses are not enough to vaccinate the world quick
During the negotiations in the WTO, the EU has argued for compulsory licensing as a better solution than the waiving of intellectual property rights. This proposal is insufficient as it maintains control of production still at the hands of big pharmaceutical companies that cannot play the role of manager of a public health crisis since profits are their main driver.
The EU has been encouraging voluntary agreements between companies, which in effect are highly restrictive and costly for licensees. Big pharmaceutical companies are unwilling to voluntarily share Covid-19 vaccines production know-how, gained through R&D funded by EU taxpayers. The EU is against imposing obligations on companies.
As MSF argues, “the EU’s proposal relies too heavily on existing measures such as compulsory licensing that wasn’t created with a pandemic in mind and are too limited to make a difference. The EU’s proposal also undermines existing TRIPS flexibilities for public health.”
Helmut Scholz (DIE LINKE, Germany):
The EU continues to block agreement at the WTO to temporarily waive intellectual property rights of Covid-19 vaccines and treatments in order to protect the profits of Big Pharma. After the US and Australia declared their support for TRIPS Waiver, even without accompanying it with concrete proposals on how to operationalise it, the EU is now isolated on the world stage. This is an unacceptable situation to be in. We are tired of hearing big words from the Council and the Commission, saying that the EU’s top priority is to vaccinate the world when the EU has become an obstacle to vaccine equality. While the EU has made donations to COVAX and has helped set up production facilities in some African states like Senegal and South Africa, this remains far too little to what is needed to defeat the pandemic. Time is running out to end this pandemic and to save lives. The EU must show that it values human lives over the profits of multinationals by joining the rest of the world in supporting TRIPS Waiver.
Watch the inspiring address of South African President Cyril Ramaphosa to the WTO on 28 September 2021, ahead of the TRIPS Council meeting.
Sign the European Citizens’ Initiative “No Profit on Pandemic” calling on the Commission to legislate to make anti-pandemic vaccines and treatments a global public good, freely accessible to everyone: https://noprofitonpandemic.eu/