The European Union backed a US proposal on Thursday to discuss waiving patent protection for COVID-19 vaccines, but drug makers and some other governments objected, claiming that it would not solve global inoculation shortages.
President Joe Biden endorsed the plan on Wednesday, reversing the US position. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen expressed willingness to look into a waiver.
“The main thing is, we have to speed this up,” U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said on Thursday as India battled a devastating COVID-19 outbreak. “None of us are going to be fully safe until … we get as many people vaccinated as possible.”
A patent waiver is “one possible means of increasing manufacture, and access to vaccines,” he said, as the White House denied a split among officials over the waiver idea.
Biden’s administration endorsed World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiations to achieve global agreement.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the Director-General of the World Trade Organization, said she “warmly welcomed” the US move. “We must act quickly in response to COVID-19 because the entire world is watching and people are dying,” she said.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO), used capital letters in a tweet to call Biden’s move a “MONUMENTAL MOMENT IN THE FIGHT AGAINST #COVID19,” saying it reflected “the wisdom and moral leadership of the United States.”
Despite this enthusiasm, critics such as drugmakers, who stand to lose money if their patent rights to COVID-19 vaccines are taken away, found flaws in the proposal.
They claim that due to the complexities of manufacturing, free access to intellectual property will not be enough to immediately increase vaccine production. In October, Moderna waived its patent rights, and on Thursday, it noted the lack of companies capable of quickly developing and obtaining approval for a similar vaccine.
Germany, the EU’s most powerful economy and home to a sizable pharmaceutical industry, dismissed the idea, claiming that vaccine shortages were caused by a lack of production capacity and quality standards rather than patent issues.
Health Minister Jens Spahn said he shared Biden’s goal of providing the whole world with vaccines. But a government spokeswoman said in a statement that “the protection of intellectual property is a source of innovation and must remain so in the future.”