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Pressed to position themselves against American support for the lifting of patents for anti-Covid vaccines, European leaders displayed their differences on Friday at a summit in Porto. Between calls for discussion and hostility, the Twenty-Seven could find it difficult to come to an agreement.
Under the surprise impetus of the Biden administration, the subject of the lifting of patents on anti-Covid-19 vaccines has imposed itself on the menu of European heads of state and government, meeting on Friday, May 7, in Portugal, for a European summit in Porto, initially dedicated to social issues.
Madrid “welcomes the US proposal to suspend patents.” An announcement made two days earlier, which had been described as historic by the World Health Organization and warmly welcomed by the World Trade Organization (WTO).
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For Spain, “Intellectual property cannot be an obstacle to ending Covid-19 and ensuring equitable and universal access to vaccines”, but lifting alone will not be sufficient to guarantee access vaccines from developing countries. “We believe that this is insufficient and that we need to be much more ambitious,” said Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, calling for “an urgent consensus” for the lifting of patents within the Organization. World Trade Organization (WTO).
The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, had already assured Thursday that the European Union was “ready to discuss” such a lifting, if it were about an “effective and pragmatic” solution.
A position shared by the Belgian Prime Minister, whose country, the heart of the EU’s pharmaceutical industry, represents 70% of European exports of anti-Covid vaccines. “We are ready to discuss with an open mind,” said Alexander De Croo.
Hitherto reluctant, French President Emmanuel Macron has told him that he is “open” to debate. “We must never forget that we Europeans have been fighting for the vaccine to be a global public good for a year now and I am happy that we are being followed”, declared the French president upon his arrival in Porto, specifying that this should “not kill the remuneration of innovation”.
But for Emmanuel Macron, the question remains secondary. “The first subject for vaccine solidarity is the donation of doses”, hammered the French Head of State, adding that the Europeans “began to give doses several weeks ago and therefore the donation of doses , that’s the key “.
Emmanuel Macron added that the problems of access to vaccines in the world were “not really a subject of intellectual property”. “You can give the intellectual property to laboratories that do not know how to produce (the vaccine), they will not produce it tomorrow” if they are not accompanied by technology transfers, he argued, making an argument flagship of pharmaceutical groups, according to which it takes at least a year to open a new factory and train its employees.
“The donation of doses (by producing countries) remains the key”, insisted Mr. Macron, also calling on the United States and the United Kingdom not to “block” the exports of vaccines produced on their soil.
The French president in particular called on the “Anglo-Saxon” countries to stop “blocking” the exports of vaccines produced on their soil. “Today the Anglo-Saxons block a lot of ingredients and vaccines. Today 100% of vaccines produced in the United States of America go for the American market,” he said.
Other states quickly displayed reserves, pointing to the difficulties of setting up new production sites and advocating instead to increase the production of existing factories.
Berlin, for its part, expressed its frank hostility, which would heighten the difficulties of the Twenty-Seven in adopting a common position at the informal summit in Porto.
For Germany, whose BioNTech and CureVac laboratories are at the forefront of vaccine design, “intellectual property protection is the source of innovation and must continue to be so”, warned Angela Merkel’s government adding that “what limits the manufacture of vaccines are production capacities and high quality requirements, not patents.”
The European Commission has exclusive competence to negotiate a possible lifting of patents at the WTO, and must therefore first receive a specific mandate from the Member States.
“The rules want that such a mandate can be adopted by a qualified majority, but you don’t want to engage in negotiations if you already have signals that certain states do not support you”, confides a European official. Either way, she insists, “just tackling intellectual property won’t solve all the problems.”