European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Thursday that Brussels was ready to discuss a US-backed proposal to waive patents on Covid-19 vaccines.
But she stressed that Europe’s priority would be to boost global supplies, and implicitly criticized the US and the UK for limiting vaccine exports.
As recently as two weeks ago, Von der Leyen told the New York Times, “I am not at all a friend of releasing patents,” arguing the pharmaceutical industry must be rewarded for its innovation.
But supporters of waiver argue that poor countries are struggling to get inoculation programs while the rich world protects intellectual property rights of drugs giants.
“The European Union is also ready to discuss any proposal that addresses the crisis in an effective and pragmatic manner,” von der Leyen told an online conference.
“And that’s why we are ready to discuss how the US proposal for waiver on intellectual property protection for covered vaccines could help achieve that objective.”
But she immediately stressed: “In the short run, however, we call upon all vaccine producing countries to allow exports and to avoid measures that disrupt supply chains.”
On Monday, European commissioner for industry Thierry Breton warned that when a company is given the patent to produce a new vaccine it takes more than a year to get production up to speed.
“Next year, when we’ve increased production in our factories, we can ask ourselves this question,” he argued.
A senior European official told reporters that the patent issue would now be on the agenda at a two day EU summit meeting in Porto that begins on Friday.
Biden’s ‘historic’ decision
On Wednesday, US Trade Representative Katherine Tai said Washington now supports calls for a global waiver on patent protections for Covid-19 vaccines while the pandemic rages.
US President Joe Biden had been under pressure to back the move, which could help poorer nations produce cheaper generic versions of the latest jabs.
The head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, hailed Biden’s “historic” decision.
Von der Leyen’s commission was in charge of procuring vaccines for the EU’s 450 million inhabitants, and was criticized for a slow start.
But she told the online audience hosted by the European University institute, based in Florence, that the bloc is now vaccinating more than 3 million people per day.
“Some might say… countries like the US and the United Kingdom have been fast at the beginning. But I say Europe achieved this success while remaining open to the world, while others keep their vaccine production for themselves,” she said.
“Europe is the main exporter of vaccines worldwide. So far, more than 200 million doses of vaccines produced in Europe have been shipped to the rest of the world,” von der Leyen said.
“Europe exports as much vaccine as it delivers to its own citizens. And to be clear, Europe is the only democratic region in the world that exports vaccines on a large scale.”