European Union leaders this week urged the White House to lift restrictions on Covid-19 vaccine exports to boost global supplies, after the US announced its support for waiving intellectual property restrictions on vaccine patents.
“We don’t think, in the short term, that it’s the magic bullet,” European Council President Charles Michel said during a summit in Portugal on Saturday.
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany – home to Pfizer vaccine collaborator BioNTech – said she sees “more risks than opportunities” in releasing vaccine patents.
“The problem is not that people are sitting on their patents and not taking action,” she said.
“Liberalising the patents, even temporarily, does not guarantee the production of the vaccine,” said Italy’s prime minister Mario Draghi.
Their comments follow White House support for waiving the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights agreement under the World Trade Organization, which has effectively provided pharmaceutical companies monopoly control over vaccine production, potentially locking out poor countries from expanding their supplies during the coronavirus pandemic.
Waiving those protections could allow other countries to make copycat vaccines without fear or legal action or sanctions under global trade agreements.
Dr Anthony Fauci has rejected criticisms from drugmakers that lifting patent protections will prevent them from scaling up production.
“They can scale up,” he told ABC’s This Week on Sunday. “You’ve got to give them credit – they’ve really just really done something that is really quite impressive in the way they’ve gotten their vaccine supply up and out for the rest of the world.”
Dr Fauci, who serves as President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, said waiving those protections is “not going to necessarily interfere” with pharmaceutical companies’ efforts to ramp up their production.
More than 100 developing countries have urged the WTO to waive those restrictions following a proposal that was filed jointly by India and South Africa back in October 2020.
Humanitarian aid groups and more than 400 government officials across Europe, including the World Health Organization’s director general, have also urged the WTO to lift intellectual property provisions on vaccines and equipment.
The US under Donald Trump’s administration opposed the waiver along with the UK, European Union, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Japan, Norway and Switzerland.
The US does not have a formal ban on exports but has focused on domestic distribution and overcoming broader challenges of vaccine hesitancy and limited vaccine and healthcare access among Americans.
The US has pledged to share up to 60 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine and shipping out materials to help India boost production of its own Covishield vaccine.
Moderna has also pledged up to 500 million doses of its vaccine to Covax, the United Nations effort to boost global vaccine supply. Through the agreement, the company will provide its first 34 million doses by the end of the year with the rest through 2022.
Roughly one-third of the US is fully inoculated, having received both required doses of the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna vaccines or single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of Sunday.
Roughly 45 per cent of the US has received at lease one dose, but demand is slowing or has reached a plateau, according to a report this week from the Kaiser Family Foundation.
The low rates signal that the US is not likely to reach “herd immunity”, a point at which a significant amount of the population has developed an immune response to the virus to avoid spreading it to others. White House coronavirus adviser Jeff Zients told CNN on Sunday that the US goal is to reach a “sustainable low level” of infections.
Dr Fauci – who has previously warned about protracted legal battles over the IP debate – stressed that the “endgame” is to “get people vaccinated” in the US and abroad.
“India is the largest vaccine-producing country in the world. They’ve got to get their resources,” he said on Sunday. “That’s the reason why other countries need to chip in to be able to get either supplies for the Indians to make their own vaccines.”