EU divided over vaccine patent suspension

Germany opposes releasing them, Spain defends the measure

2 min
German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the Bundestag on Friday morning

BarcelonaThe day after the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said she was open to discussing the possible suspension of patents on covid-19 vaccines, which has the support of the United States, it seems increasingly clear that it will be difficult to achieve a single position of the community bloc in the negotiations that are now opening, to this end, in the World Trade Organization (WTO). The European partners are discussing it on Friday at the social summit being held in the Portuguese city of Porto, where the Spanish Prime Minister, Pedro Sanchez, is in fact going with a proposal to speed up world vaccination.

The Spanish government is in favour of temporarily releasing the patents on vaccines, as India and South Africa proposed last October to the WTO and as Joe Biden's government now also defends. French President Emmanuel Macron was also in favour of this on Thursday when he praised Biden's step. But another key player, Germany, has already made its rejection of the proposal clear, even though at first it seemed to be in favour of it.

The decision has to be taken by consensus in the WTO, which has opened a negotiation that could last for months, and it is beginning to look as if the EU will not act as a united bloc. "We need an EU coordinated approach. We are not convinced if patent waivers would effectively help getting more vaccine doses to the people, since the main bottleneck for now is production capacity. However we are open to discuss all possible solutions", a EU spokesman said Friday during the Portuguese summit, according to Reuters.

Of the 700 million vaccines that have already been distributed worldwide, only 0.2% have reached low-income countries. Many experts argue that suspending patents will make the doses more accessible to these countries, but the pharmaceutical industry opposes it, arguing that the problem is production capacity, because very few states have the technology and resources to produce these types of vaccines.

However, Biden's support for the proposal, made official on Wednesday, is putting pressure on Brussels and other countries, such as the United Kingdom, to change their position. The day after Washington's announcement, governments such as Italy, Australia and New Zealand joined in. Others have yet to make a statement, such as Canada, despite increasing domestic pressure to follow the path set by Biden.

However, Germany, home to the Biotech company that developed one of the covid-19 vaccines along with U.S.-based Pfizer, is hesitant. "The protection of intellectual property is a source of innovation and must continue to be so in the future", said a German government spokesman in a statement, in which he argued that the priority was not patents, but to increase the production capacity of vaccines in the world and quality standards.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, who said he did not believe that suspending patents would be a quick solution, had also expressed the same view. Health Minister Jens Spahn, on the other hand, had been more ambiguous earlier, saying that his government "shares the US president's goal". "Providing the world with vaccines is the only sustainable way out of this pandemic and we will not be safe until everyone is safe", he said, although he then added: "There are several ideas on how to make this possible and, above all, the expansion of production facilities is crucial".