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EU to support targeted patent waiver on COVID vaccines, say sources

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By Shona Murray
A high school student at Eqrem Qabej school is given a shot of a COVID-19 vaccine by a health official, in Pristina, Kosovo, Friday, Nov. 26, 2021.
A high school student at Eqrem Qabej school is given a shot of a COVID-19 vaccine by a health official, in Pristina, Kosovo, Friday, Nov. 26, 2021.   -   Copyright  Visar Kryeziu/AP Photo

A deal to allow developing countries to produce COVID-19 vaccines -- without an agreement from the holder of the patent -- could be reached by next week, Euronews has learned.

The EU, which is against the wholesale waiving of intellectual property rights, says it is now "ready to go beyond" its initial position, "to get consensus on a waiver that makes sense [and] that will increase production," a European Commission official has said.

Negotiations on a targeted waiver are ongoing in Geneva at the World Trade Organization (WTO).

If a consensus is reached, any country seeking to authorise a company to produce vaccines should immediately be able to do so "without fearing a potential risk of litigation by the holders of the patent".

"The EU has been intensively engaged over the last months to try to find a way forward that confirms and reassures countries that consider they actually need to authorise a company to produce vaccines -- they should be able to do so in a rapid and effective manner even if there is no agreement by the holder of the patent," said an EU source.

"We are ready to look into a waiver that is sufficiently targeted towards the aim to achieve that any country that considers it should be able to authorise a company to produce and export vaccines should be able to do it in a rapid and effective manner."

The EU’s position remains that without intellectual property rights, "we wouldn’t have a vaccine".

However, "we are now trying to find pragmatic solutions, targeted at COVID-19 vaccines, without putting the whole intellectual property system into jeopardy," an official said.

Although the terms of the licensing plan are not complete, Euronews understands that the EU is willing to agree to the compulsory licensing of COVID-19 vaccines to countries willing to produce the vaccine.

This will force the right holder to give access to the requesting government under specific conditions, such as a guarantee that the vaccines are produced at cost -- not for profit -- and for the greater good of citizens.

"Countries already have the ability to issue compulsory licences, but they would have to do that on a country by country basis, and it's really complex and legally difficult. It can take months and months," said Max Lawson, the head of inequality policy at OXFAM.

"The whole point of a comprehensive waiver for the whole world is that we can move fast and developing countries can manufacture vaccines as quickly as possible. So this really is an attempt to put a positive spin on the same old blockade by the European nations, by Germany, by the European Commission. And it's preventing millions of people being vaccinated and it's costing lives."

There is a major concern among vaccine producing countries and companies that a wholesale waiver would result in countries like China using the technology for its own advantage, or for India -- which already produces vaccines, to start making generic products.

Industry sources still contend the IP waiver is not a panacea in overcoming the unfair distribution of vaccines to poorer countries.

Complex manufacturing, access to raw materials, distribution, and vaccine disinformation have all contributed to the vaccination campaign issues.

"There are many issues and obstacles regarding the production of vaccines and the IP waiver may not be the most important one but it is part of the contribution we can provide for, but in a very targeted manner to avoid undermining the value of the IP system," said an EU official.

"We should not forget it was intellectual property that new vaccines have been developed, and a lot of collaborations had been established between companies to produce vaccines.

"And if we were to have a very broad type of waiver all of those elements would be disrupted, and that quite frankly would not be at all helpful for our fundamental goal which is to increase the production of vaccines. And to increase investment by vaccine makers in the developing world."

Although a deal is within reach, it is not yet inevitable. EU trade sources say they are “very disappointed” with the lack of input by the US team on this issue at the level of the WTO.

This is especially so given US President Joe Biden’s public commitment to an IP waiver in May.