Four civil society representatives ask MEP Anna Cavazzini (Greens/EFA) about the Covid-19 vaccine patent waiver, as the wane of some countries’ Omicron winters poses a new threat to global vaccine equity.
By September 2020, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, the European Union (EU) and Japan had deals for more than four billion doses of frontrunner experimental COVID-19 vaccines.
With early access to jabs and follow up boosters, upwards of about 60% of people in these countries, on average, had been fully vaccinated as of December 2021.
Today, only one in 10 people in low-income countries have received even a single dose of a Covid-19 vaccine.
Early drafts of an EU-AU declaration have not included language on the waiver
In response to vaccine inequality, South Africa and India proposed a Covid-19 waiver to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in October 2020. The proposal — supported by more than 100 countries — would temporarily waive some intellectual property protections to allow countries to more easily import or make Covid-19 vaccines, medicines or other goods.
In theory, these kinds of allowances already exist for poor nations and those in the midst of public health emergencies under the WTO’s 2001 Doha Declaration and what’s commonly known as “TRIPS flexibilities.” Still, using these flexibilities has been neither easy nor without trade consequences historically.
The waiver — and local vaccine production in Africa — are high on the agenda at this week’s two-day European Union-African Union Summit, which begins Thursday in Brussels. The meeting is expected to produce a declaration on a joint 2030 vision. Sources say that preliminary versions of this document, circulated by the EU, did not include the TRIPS waiver. African Union representatives are likely to push back, advocating for the waiver as well as also technology transfer to be included in the final declaration.
Meanwhile, recent revelations in the British Medical Journal that German firm BioNTech sent representatives to South Africa to actively dissuade the government from locally producing an mRNA Covid-19 vaccine are only likely to add to tensions.
Divided, indifferent and sometimes protectionist
Although some EU members may support the TRIPS waiver — and others might have no opinion — opposition to the proposal by larger Member States such as Germany as well as a general reluctance from the European Commission are thought to be largely driving the bloc’s stance. Some countries have echoed the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations, arguing that even with a waiver, the Global South lacks the facilities to produce Covid-19 vaccines.
The humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has identified at least seven African pharmaceutical companies that could produce a Covid-19 vaccine in as little as six months, if existing producers shared their technology.
Meanwhile, Germany’s resistance to the TRIPS waiver is focused on protecting BioNTech — what it sees as the country’s first foothold into the biotech field, explains Member of European Parliament Anna Cavazzini of the German Green Party. Cavazzini has been advocating for the waiver in the European Parliament, which has twice voted in support of it.
Instead of a waiver, here’s what Team Europe might offer
In January, French President Emmanuel Macron told the European Parliament that he hoped the EU would be able to present the African Union this week with a global license for coronavirus vaccines. Increased investment in African local production — after prodding from the European Parliament — is also likely to be a cornerstone of the EU’s response.
Both France and Germany are partially funding South Africa’s development of an mRNA vaccine as part of a World Health Organization hub. If South Africa is successful, it will freely share its technology with interested countries as part of the hub.
Still, Cavazzini sees the EU-AU Summit as a crucial opportunity to keep the Covid-19 IP waiver on the agenda, especially in the face of waning infections in some European countries threaten to add to complacency about global vaccine equity.
“Omicron numbers are going down in Europe, and the general mood is that we may be getting out of the crisis — it will be more difficult to have a public debate on vaccine distribution globally,” she says.
“That is also why the WHO hub is so important — to ensure that before a pandemic strikes, that countries of the Global South can also produce vaccines to deal with it so that we don’t have this Western, Northern monopoly again,” she continues. “We need much more knowledge transfer in general.”
Ask an MEP: Here’s what four South African activists want to know about waivers, patents and scandals
Member of the European Parliament Cavazzini recently answered four questions from South African activists working to advance global vaccine equity.
1. University of Cape Town (UCT) public health professor and People’s Health Movement in South Africa (PHM-SA) steering Committee member Leslie London
The need to vaccinate everyone globally has never been clearer given that unvaccinated populations are vulnerable to the development of new variants that spread globally. Why doesn’t Germany recognise that ensuring local vaccine production in the Global South to increase vaccination coverage is in its own best interest and that a TRIPS waiver is necessary to achieve this?
Anna Cavazzini: “I'm not a representative of the German government but I can explain the debate that is going on in Germany. There is a strong community, including NGOs and the Greens, who are advocating for a TRIPS waiver and other related demands.
“We, the Greens, tried to include the waiver in the coalition agreement signed with the new government but the other parties — the Social Democrats and the Free Democrats — were strictly against mentioning the waiver. Instead, the wording is a bit more open in the coalition treaty, which calls for Germany to participate constructively in the international debate.
“There is a big concern in Germany whether the waiver will prevent future innovation and investments. Of course, we do not think that this is the case but this is the debate and why at the moment, the new German government is not actively proposing the waiver, unfortunately.”
2. Head of the African Alliance Tian Johnson
What reasons have your EU colleagues given you for their rejection of the call by the European Parliament to support the waiver?
Anna Cavazzini: “Because some bigger Member States are against the waiver, the European Commission cannot, at the moment, take a strong position on it despite the fact that the European Parliament has already called for the waiver twice. For me, as a European Parliamentarian, this is highly frustrating because in this issue the Commission doesn’t listen to us — it listens only to Member States. From a democratic point of view as well, this is problematic.”
3. UCT political studies senior lecturer and PHM-SA steering committee member Lauren Paremoer
The WHO’s mRNA Hub in South Africa is aimed at realizing the rights to health and to benefit from scientific progress. Germany has ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and under international law, is bound to promote and protect these rights. What steps will the German government take to hold BioNTech accountable for its actions to undermine the hub and to ensure that BioNTech takes appropriate corrective measures, such as facilitating technology transfer and not enforcing patents on Covid-19 technologies?
Anna Cavazzini: “My personal opinion is that, of course, the work of the World Health Organization’s mRNA hub is great. It also shows, again, that companies in the Global South are capable of producing mRNA vaccines despite arguments we often hear against the TRIPS waiver that companies are not ready to do so.
“I cannot speak for the German government’s plans when it comes to BioNTech’s actions, since I am a Member of the European Parliament, but what I can say is that the Greens in the European Parliament and in Germany are also trying to talk to the companies and encourage them to voluntarily share their technology.”
4. Head of the Health Justice Initiative Fatima Hassan
Why is the new German government so reluctant to take on Big Pharma power?
Anna Cavazzini: “To my mind, the problem is that this intellectual property model has been the dominant model in industrialized countries and there isn’t enough critical debate or alternatives being floated.
“Meanwhile, the average person in Germany or the United States is thinking, ‘Of course, if I invented something, I would want patents to protect my invention.’ So despite the fact that some NGOs — especially health NGOs — are being really vocal on the waiver, it’s not a debate for the broader public, who thinks this intellectual property model protects our economy.
“The Covid pandemic showed very clearly the flaws of the current system, but there is still very little critical discussion going on about alternatives. We urgently need to assess how to best ensure future innovation and equal access to vaccines and medicines. This kind of debate is missing and it is no surprise that the consequences are being felt the most by people in the Global South..”