While nearly 82% of Europeans are fully vaccinated, this is the case for just 11% of Africans. This vaccine gap could overshadow discussions between the heads of state of the two continents at the summit to be held in Brussels on 17 and 18 February between the European Union and the African Union. France, which currently holds the Presidency of the Council of the EU, has been called upon to act to waive patents on Covid-19 vaccines. Emmanuel Macron is the champion of the “global licence” project.
There are just a few lines, which almost get lost, in the 76-page document containing the programme of the French Presidency of the Council of the European Union. Page 7 to be precise, in the General Affairs chapter, states that it is “committed to strengthening the EU’s vaccine production capacities and will simultaneously pursue international solidarity efforts, especially with regard to Africa, for access to vaccines for low- and middle-income countries, in particular thanks to the COVAX Facility”.
Although the sentence abounds with all the nebulous language of a diplomatic statement, it is crystal clear in what it does not say. No reference is made to the waiver on Covid-19 vaccine patents, contrary to the meeting with NGOs of 9 June 2021, at which, despite his government’s misgivings about the idea, Emmanuel Macron pledged to support the calls for a temporary waiver on patents proposed within the framework of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) by, amongst others, India and South Africa.
Since June 2021, France has remained silent on the issue. When asked about this subject on 19 January 2022 by MEP Manon Aubry (La France insoumise) while presenting the priorities of the French EU Council Presidency to the Members of the European Parliament, Emmanuel Macron clarified his thoughts on the subject. “Do we need to destroy intellectual property? No”, he said. “Why? Because it is the fair reward for innovation”, he went on to stress. The French President, who had not yet announced his intention to stand for re-election, nonetheless pledged to do all in his power to ensure that “intellectual property is never a barrier to the creation of production capacities”.
To achieve this, he hopes that the 6th European Union-African Union summit, happening in Brussels on 17-18 February 2022, will adopt “a common proposal for a global licence for Covid vaccines and more broadly”. It is hard to say what exactly he means by a global licence. When addressing the members of the European Parliament, Emmanuel Macron went no further than to provide a few clarifications before wrapping up his speech. The proposal, he said, would allow the restrictions under intellectual property and technological transfer rules to be lifted so as to “develop capacities in Africa”.
Ten days later, also under questioning from the MEPs while presenting them with the “health” priorities of the French EU Council Presidency, Olivier Véran, the French Minister for Health, followed his head of state’s lead. Although there is not, as far as he is concerned, any “ideological barrier” to a patent waiver, “we must still send out a signal to researchers that they will be able to profit from what they are capable of producing today”, he took pains to stress.
Like Emmanuel Macron, Olivier Véran also expressed his reservations as to the capacities of the poorest countries to take ownership of the production and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines. “Generally speaking, the countries that have no access to the vaccine tend to struggle to structure a healthcare system capable of supplying vaccines and vaccinating people”, the health minister stressed, in answer to questions from the members of the committee on the environment, public health and food security. A round table on the theme “Healthcare systems and vaccine production” will be held as part of the EU-AU summit.
EU leaders, predominantly France, are expected to take the opportunity to respond to criticism and reiterate the efforts they have made in terms of donating doses of vaccine. “We will keep our commitments”, the French President has pledged. “700 million doses will have been distributed by June 2022”. Cécile Duflot, managing director of Oxfam France, welcomes the donations, but maintains that “on their own, they [the vaccine donations] will never be enough to meet global demand”. Expectations of the French EU Council Presidency high: obtain a temporary waiver of intellectual property rights, speed up technological transfers to allow vaccines to be produced on the African continent and ensure access to healthcare for all populations. Currently, just over half the population of the world is fully vaccinated.
Looking at the candidates in the French 2022 presidential election, the winner of which will be heading up the second part of the French EU Council Presidency, the matter of patent waivers divides along the traditional, and very real, political left/right lines. On the right, Valérie Pécresse and Marine Le Pen have taken position against the idea of lifting patent protection. The latter, Rassemblement national presidential candidate, argues that laboratories will no longer take the risk of researching new vaccines in the event of a severe new variant, if they know that there is no profit in it for them. This is the argument used by all opponents of waiving vaccine patents, in political circles and elsewhere.
Left and progressive presidential candidates Jean-Luc Mélenchon (La France insoumise), Yannick Jadot (Europe Écologie Les Verts), Philippe Poutou (Nouveau parti anticapitaliste) and Anne Hidalgo (Parti socialiste), signed a letter of 14 January 2022 calling upon Emmanuel Macron “to work for a ‘patent waiver’ by calling for the meeting of the WTO initially scheduled for November 2021 and postponed on public health grounds to be held as soon as possible”.