Europe still cannot adhere to the TRIPS waiver

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Photo by: Etienne Ansotte / European Union

In May 2020, the European Commission organized a world conference to raise funds for nascent COVID-19 vaccine development efforts. Although the United States under the administration of then-President Donald Trump snubbed the pledge event, organizers managed to raise more than $ 8 billion, as world leaders and donors alike. relayed to announce their contributions.

During his pledge, French President Emmanuel Macron took the opportunity to focus on that any COVID-19 vaccine would be considered “global public property” with access available to “the whole planet”.

Much has changed in a year.

The same European leaders who rallied these early fundraising efforts to a pledge of global solidarity are now the main obstacle to a waiver of the World Trade Organization Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, or TRIPS. the proposal is supported by much of the global south – in part supported by the administration of US President Joe Biden, which reversed its stance earlier this month – as the best way to ensure equitable access to vaccines.

European leaders such as Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel “said no one would own the vaccine, making promises, including on sharing know-how and sharing vaccines,” said Ellen ‘t Hoen, director of Drug Law and Policy, which organizes analyzes and policy recommendations to support access to medicines. Although they are now in a position to move the negotiations forward, “this has all gone out the window,” she said.

European skeptics have rallied to framing the derogation as “false good idea“That will not quickly alleviate the global COVID-19 vaccine imbalance, which has so far successful in only 10 countries administering more than 75% of all doses.

“If it [the revised TRIPS waiver proposal] was aimed at convincing some of the skeptics, I’m not sure that went far enough.

– Jaume Vidal, Senior Policy Advisor, Health Action International

Instead, the leaders of the European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, grow a set of interventions, including limiting export restrictions, improving vaccine manufacturing in southern countries and issuing voluntary licenses that would allow specific manufacturers to avoid intellectual property restrictions, without instituting a universal exemption.

While affirming that she is open to the discussion of a derogation, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen mentionned following the overthrow of the Biden administration that “we shouldn’t … lose sight of major emergencies now, which effectively speeds up vaccine production as quickly as possible and ensures a fair and even distribution of vaccines.” “

Jaume Vidal, Senior Policy Advisor in the Amsterdam Office International Health Action, says this ignores the fact that these options have been available since the start of the pandemic and yet the distribution imbalance persists.

“It’s just spurious,” he said, pointing to the COVID-19 technology access pool, which was created at the start of the pandemic to facilitate the voluntary sharing of intellectual property and resources. knowledge in order to increase the production of vaccines and therapeutic products. In the year which followed its creation, no company made use of it.

Access advocates are trying to keep the focus on the proposed waiver as essential to overhauling a system they say prioritizes intellectual property over people’s health. And as Europe has become the new battleground for this debate, they are accelerating efforts to overcome opposition from the main continental leaders. This includes the defense of a vote to the European Parliament, which could come as early as June 7 on a resolution in favor of the proposal.

This would build on a successful effort earlier this month to insert language supporting the TRIPS waiver in A resolution to fight the AIDS epidemic, which Parliament adopted on May 20.

The next “vote is really important for those of us who have been pushing and pushing for a TRIPS waiver,” Vidal said. “We feel like we’re gaining momentum. We are not afraid to put that momentum to the test.

This vote would take place at the same time as the next TRIPS Council Meet at the WTO should start June 8, when the proposed exemption must be discussed. While that won’t force European Commission officials who represent the EU at the World Trade Organization to drop their opposition to the waiver, they “might lie down a bit,” Vidal said.

At the same time, the activists are trying to convince the leaders of the countries that have supported the waiver to challenge the committee’s opposition to the European Council. A committee in the lower house of the Spanish Parliament sustained a call to support the proposal, and Italian leaders have also expressed support.

Following the US announcement, Merkel – who heads Europe’s largest economy – mentionned, “The protection of intellectual property is a source of innovation and must remain so in the future.

That the change in the Biden administration has not had more influence on some key US allies in Europe comes as no shock to Tahir Amin, co-executive director of the Initiative for Medicines, Access & Knowledge. Although the reversal was presented as a surprise, there is “no way the United States has not discussed whether it will support a waiver before announcing it with countries wishing to maintain the waiver. status quo on intellectual property, ”he said.

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At the same time, the United States has decided to limit the terms of the proposal, presented by South Africa and India, by limiting the negotiations to only vaccines – setting aside requests for waivers that could also s ‘apply to therapeutic, diagnostic and other materials. Knowing that Europe, Japan and others might maintain their opposition, it allows Washington to function as the “good cop,” Amin said, while reducing the scope of the discussion.

“It’s a tactic to really keep things narrow and restricted,” he said. “It would mean that the sponsors of the waiver proposal really have to grapple with all of these different components.”

This happens even when South Africa, India and dozens of other countries have submitted a revised proposal on May 21 in response to specific concerns from waiver skeptics about the scope of the original proposal.

The new proposal said the exemption would only apply to “health products and technologies” aimed specifically at the prevention, treatment and containment of COVID-19. The clarification was designed to respond to worries raised by groups such as the American Action Forum, a conservative think tank, that “a foreign company could produce a specific drug under the auspices of COVID-19 but sell it for another disease.”

At the same time, the text rejects American efforts to limit the scope of discussion to vaccines.

The lack of an expiry date on the waiver had also alarmed opponents, and the new revision added some clarity to the suggested timeline. The new proposal guarantees the waiver for at least three years, after which the WTO General Council may decide to extend it.

“They answered the most salient doubts about the length and scope, but I think the idea was to show they were ready to commit,” said Vidal. “If it was meant to convince some skeptics, I’m not sure it went far enough. “

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