By Philip Blenkinsop
BRUSSELS (Reuters) -The European Union put forward a plan on Wednesday it believes will help boost the production and availability of COVID-19 vaccines more effectively than a proposed waiver of patent rights now backed by the United States.
Under pressure from developing countries demanding a waiver of intellectual property (IP) rights for vaccines and treatments, the EU presented an alternative focused on export restrictions, pledges from vaccine developers and the flexibility of existing World Trade Organization rules.
World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Monday the world has reached a situation of "vaccine apartheid", with poorer countries that make up half the population receiving just 17% of vaccines.
EU Trade Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis told the European Parliament that universal and fair access was the global community's number one priority.
In a debate on global vaccine access, Dombrovskis told lawmakers the European Union was ready to engage in examining the extent to which temporarily waiving the WTO's TRIPS agreement contributed to making vaccines more available.
India and South Africa have urged fellow WTO members since October to lift IP rights to vaccines as a way of ensuring the world is supplied. Debate around the issue erupted anew last week when U.S. President Joe Biden supported the idea.
The EU and other opponents have said this will not increase vaccine output.
The European Commission vice-president said the single most effective way to achieve universal access was to ramp up production, share more vaccines and make them affordable.
Dombrovskis said the EU plan had three elements.
Export restrictions should be kept to a minimum, he said, highlighting that half of vaccines produced in EU countries had been exported. French President Emmanuel Macron urged Washington on Saturday to drop restrictions on exports of vaccines and vaccine components.
Vaccine producers and developers should also make concrete pledges to increase supply to vulnerable developing countries at production cost, Dombrovskis said.
Finally, Dombrovskis highlighted existing WTO rules allowing countries to grant licences to manufacturers even without the consent of the patent-holder. If such a manufacturer provided vaccines at cost price, the rights holder should not make a profit out of any payment due.
The Commission, which will present the plan to WTO members in early June, said it could be implemented far quicker than a waiver, which would require a change of WTO rules and could take many months to hammer out.
The European Parliament will vote on an IP waiver resolution in June, although Wednesday's debate showed a clear split between left-leaning and Green groups in favour and right-leaning ones against.
(Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Nick Macfie)