Plans to waive patent rights for coronavirus jabs to boost vaccines in poorer countries gathered pace today after Brussels signalled its backing.
US Trade Representative Katherine Tai said that “extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures” and pledged to launch negotiations at the World Trade Organisation to try to secure the waiver.
The EU is willing to discuss a proposal, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen revealed.
“The EU is also ready to discuss any proposals that addresses the crisis in an effective and pragmatic manner,” she said in a speech to the European University Institute in Florence.
“That’s why we are ready to discuss how the US proposal for a waiver on intellectual property protections for Covid-19 vaccines could help achieve that objective.”
The move piles pressure on Boris Johnson to offer Britain’s support.
South Africa and India made the initial vaccine waiver proposal at the World Trade Organization in October.
The nations gathered support from a large number of developing countries who say it is a vital step to make vaccines more widely available.
The World Health Organization said in April that of 700 million vaccines globally administered, only 0.2% had been in low-income countries.
Until now, the European Union has been with a group of countries, many of them home to large pharmaceutical companies, including Britain and Switzerland, that have opposed the waiver.
They argue it would undermine incentives for companies who have produced vaccines in record time to do so in a future pandemic. They also say waiving patents would not instantly resolve the problem, with a lack of sufficient manufacturing capacity.
Vaccine-making is also complicated, as evidenced by production problems of AstraZeneca, and would also require a transfer of technology, know-how and personnel.
But World Health Organisation Covid-19 technical lead Maria Van Kerkhove said: “We need those vaccines distributed around the world.
“The inequity that we’ve seen with vaccine distribution is grotesque and you know less than one per cent of low income countries have access to the vaccine.
“And that is a moral outrage around the world, and so we’re not faulting those who have access to the vaccine but we need more sharing of these doses through Covax because we have a fair allocation process to reach those who are most in need.”
Welcoming Joe Biden ‘ support, Global Justice Now director Nick Dearden said: “This seismic decision from the Biden administration is a watershed moment.
“It could be the beginning of the end of vaccine apartheid, if other leaders like Boris Johnson stop standing in the way. The Prime Minister has no more excuses.
“He must now follow Biden’s lead and drop his opposition to the intellectual property waiver immediately. Anything less would be shameful. This is not the end of the process, and negotiations will now begin at the WTO in earnest – these negotiations must be conducted openly and with transparency. We urge all world leaders to see the writing on the wall and put people’s lives ahead of corporate profit. In the many months since this waiver was first proposed, we could have produced many hundreds of millions more vaccines. Let’s get moving.”
However, the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations called the move “disappointing”.
“A waiver is the simple but the wrong answer to what is a complex problem,” the Geneva-based lobby group said.