Intellectual property is "just one part of the story" in vaccine production and "practical know-how is equally important", said Valdis Dombrovskis, the EU Commission Executive Vice-President, as international calls for lifting patents on coronavirus vaccines mount.
"It's important to understand what is the problem that we're trying to solve. The problem is that we need to ramp up global vaccine production as fast as possible and we need to ensure accessibility to vaccines in both developed and developing countries," Dombrovskis, who is in charge of trade and relations with the World Trade Organization (WTO), told Euronews.
"The question is how also we can ramp up production in developing countries and this can be done through voluntary licensing. It can be done, if needed, through compulsory licensing. From the EU [side], we're indicating that we're ready to work also in this kind of solutions."
The vice-president's comments follow a surprising move on Wednesday evening by Katherine Tai, the US Trade Representative. Tai wrote on Twitter that the administration of President Joe Biden was in favour of waiving intellectual property protection for COVID-19 vaccines.
The US Secretary promised to engage with the WTO to make the waiver happen but cautioned the negotiations would take time and need to be based on consensus.
Over 100 countries, such as India and South Africa, support the initiative. Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), called it a "monumental moment" in the fight against the pandemic.
'Practical know-how is equally important'
Dombrovskis warned that the feasibility and usefulness of the patent waiver must be demonstrated and that other instruments might help overcome the problems in the short term.
"We're ready to discuss with US and with our partners in the WTO the concrete US proposal [of patent waiver] and to see how it helps to address the underlying problems, which is to ramp up global vaccine production," he said.
"Because intellectual property ... is just one part of the story. There is still much of the know-how needed. And this you can achieve through partnerships between those companies which have this know-how and those companies which can provide additional vaccine manufacturing capacity."
The vice-president said that the EU was already "actively facilitating" this type of partnerships and licencing agreements with developing countries.
"Of course, intellectual property rights are important. But the practical know-how is equally important."
Asked if he expects member states that host big pharmaceutical companies, like Belgium and the Netherlands, to put up a fight against the American plan, the Latvian Commissioner refused to speculate.
"At this stage, I cannot [give a] position on behalf of the member states. It's for member states themselves. I can tell you the state of play from the European Commission side."
Dombrovskis pointed out that the EU is "exporting more than 40%" of its vaccine production.
"A lot of this goes to developing countries. We do not see this followed by other developed countries yet," he added.
The EU's U-turn on IP rights
Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, was the first high-ranking official in Brussels to react to the unexpected American proposal.
"The European Union is also ready to discuss any proposal that addresses the crisis in an effective and pragmatic manner. And that’s why we are ready to discuss how the US proposal for waiver on IP protection for covid vaccines could help achieve that objective," von der Leyen said on Tuesday morning during the State of the Union 2021, an event organised by the European University Institute.
The president's stance was markedly different than the position she expressed during an interview with The New York Times last month when she remarked "I am not at all a friend of releasing patents", a mood that until this week was prevalent across the continent.
Members of the European Parliament, including President David Sassoli, also voiced their support in favour of the American initiative.
French President Emmanuel Macron joined too Biden's call but insisted the priority for advanced economies should be donating more doses to poorer countries.
Germany, however, rejected the initiative, saying the focus must be on increasing capacity and ensuring quality rather than on intellectual property.
The pharmaceutical sector has already moved to oppose the initiative, which is considered unprecedented. The industry sees patents as a key element to guarantee profit and offset the costly and risky nature of research and development (R&D).
"This short-sighted and ineffectual decision by the Biden administration puts the hard-won progress in fighting this terrible disease in jeopardy," said Nathalie Moll, director-general of the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA).
"This decision will sow confusion between public and private partners, further weaken already strained supply chains and foster the proliferation of counterfeit vaccines," said Stephen J. Ubl, president and CEO of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) association.