PORTO, Portugal – EU leaders have a question for the President of the United States about the vaccine patent waiver: So how exactly is it going to be, Joe?
Joe Biden may have put Europe on his heels with his surprise proposal to suspend intellectual property rights, but at a European Council summit in Porto, Portugal, senior EU officials lobbied , claiming that Washington had not presented a specific plan and that, in the short term, waiving patents would not contribute to the immediate and urgent need to increase production.
“On intellectual property, we do not believe in the short term that this will be the miracle solution but we are ready to engage on this subject as soon as a concrete proposal is put on the table,” said the President of the European Council on Saturday. , Charles Michel. morning, summarizing a dinner-discussion of about three hours between the leaders Friday evening on the pandemic.
“We all agree that we must do everything possible to increase vaccine production all over the world,” said Michel.
French President Emmanuel Macron has been even more adamant, first calling on the United States and the United Kingdom to take bigger steps: de facto end the vaccine export bans; share the technology needed to speed up production; and donation of existing doses.
“The Anglo-Saxons must first end their export bans,” Macron said, referring to the United States and the United Kingdom.
Waiver of patents, the French president said, should be fourth on the priority list. “If we want to work quickly, there is not a single factory in the world today that cannot produce doses for poor countries due to intellectual property,” Macron said upon reaching the top. “The priority today is not intellectual property – that’s not true. We would be lying. It is production. “
Companies wishing to produce vaccines using a waiver recognize that a change in intellectual property rules would not mean they could instantly start producing doses. But they say it would be a key step in allowing more manufacturers to manufacture the vaccines.
During the leaders’ dinner debate, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was participating remotely via videoconference, warned her colleagues that Biden’s proposal needed careful consideration, noting that a patent waiver could do more to benefit a geopolitical rival like China, which has production capacity. use western mRNA technology, rather than helping needy countries in Africa obtain vaccines.
Biden’s criticism marked an escalation in the struggle for supremacy in vaccine diplomacy – a geopolitical battle in which China, Russia and the UK are also fully engaged. And it came as EU heads of state and government prepared for a video conference with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a strong advocate for the lifting of patent protection the country has faced. to a devastating spike in infections.
EU leaders have been on the defensive since Biden’s announcement, which they see as a shrewd – and somewhat infuriating – public relations maneuver.
Although EU leaders have announced urgent plans to help India, Biden has eclipsed Europe, first by announcing donations to India of millions of doses of AstraZeneca vaccine, then turning the tide. and approving a patent exemption. India is a pharmaceutical manufacturing powerhouse and perhaps the country best positioned to capitalize on Biden’s plan.
But the competition for influence extends beyond India. At a press conference on Friday evening in Porto, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen noted that the EU is already implementing plans to send more than 600,000 doses to countries in the Western Balkans and is planning similar grants for the countries of the Eastern Partnership group which cover Eastern Europe and the Caucasus.
That group includes Ukraine, which has pleaded with Washington for help with vaccines – to no avail, and where Secretary of State Antony Blinken paid a visit this week.
Scolding the US leader for his lack of details, von der Leyen and other EU leaders have repeatedly pointed out that among democracies, only the EU’s single market countries export large quantities of vaccines.
Asked about the patent issue, von der Leyen said, “We should be open to this discussion, but when we lead this discussion there has to be a 360 degree view, because we need vaccines now for the whole world. . And in the short and medium term, the IP exemption will not solve the problems, will not provide a single dose of vaccine in the short and medium term. ”
“The European Union is the only continent or region, democratic region of this world, which exports on a large scale,” added von der Leyen. “About 50 percent of what is produced in Europe is exported” – to the tune of some 200 million doses delivered worldwide.
Macron reiterated the point on Saturday morning, saying that patent waiver could be helpful, but only in conjunction with other steps.
“It is a false debate to say that it is the emergency,” Macron said. “The urgent need is to produce more and to have more solidarity.” He added: “If we want to put the cart before the horse, it will not work.”
Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo summed up the point of view of EU leaders: “As Europeans we do not need to be educated. The United States has not exported a single vaccine in the past six months Europe has been producing for itself and the rest of the world for the past six months.
Hanne Cokelaere and Ashleigh Furlong contributed reporting.