Support grows for easing COVID-19 vaccine patent rules, but hurdles remain

France has now joined the United States in calling for the easing of patent protections for COVID-19 vaccines. Other countries, including Canada, China and Russia, are at least willing to take part in WTO talks into a proposal to waive international protection rules.

Canada agrees to take part in WTO talks to waive patent protections on vaccines

Director general of the Ghana Health Service Dr. Patrick Kuma-Aboagye receives a COVID-19 vaccine in Accra, Ghana on March 2, 2021. Just over 20 million vaccine doses have been administered across Africa, which counts some 1.3 billion people. (Francis Kokoroko/Reuters)

France joined the United States on Thursday in supporting an easing of patent protections on COVID-19 vaccines that could help poorer countries get more doses and speed the end of the pandemic. While the backing from two countries with major drugmakers is important, many obstacles remain.

The United States' support for waiving the protections marked a dramatic shift in its position. Still, even just one country voting against such a waiver would be enough to block efforts at the World Trade Organization.

With the Biden administration's announcement on Wednesday, the U.S. became the first country in the developed world with big vaccine manufacturing to publicly support the waiver idea floated by India and South Africa last October at the WTO.

"I completely favour this opening up of the intellectual property," French President Emmanuel Macron said Thursday on a visit to a vaccine centre.

Moderna Inc. on Thursday said it believes countries around the globe would continue buying its COVID-19 vaccine for years even if patents on the shots are waived, noting that rivals would face significant hurdles in scaling up manufacturing. Last October, the U.S. pharmaceutical company said it would not enforce patents on its messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine during the pandemic.

Another mRNA vaccine developer echoed the sentiment that waiving intellectual property rights was not a solution.

WATCH | Biden backs waiving vaccine patents:

Biden backs waiving vaccine patents

3 years ago
Duration 3:36
Featured VideoThe Biden administration has joined calls for more sharing of the technology behind COVID-19 vaccines to help speed the end of the pandemic, amid a debate over lifting intellectual property protections.

"Patents are not the limiting factor for the production or supply of our vaccine. They would not increase the global production and supply of vaccine doses in the short and middle term," said Germany's BioNTech, which produces the Pfizer shot. BioNTech said it took more than a decade to develop its vaccines manufacturing process and replicating it would be difficult.

Another German company, CureVac, which hopes to release final trial results on its messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) vaccine as early as this month, said patents were not to blame for supply bottlenecks.

"Since mRNA technology has emerged as the key technology in the fight against COVID-19, the world now needs the same raw materials in unfathomable amounts," a spokesperson said.

Like Moderna, CureVac said it would not enforce its patents during the pandemic and that it knew of no other developer that would.

The International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA) said the waiver proposal would invite new manufacturers that lack essential know-how and oversight from the inventors to crowd out established contractors.

IFPMA director general Thomas Cueni told Reuters the way to kick-start low-income countries' vaccination campaigns was for rich countries to donate vaccines, rather than widen eligibility to young and healthy people at home.

Donations should be prioritized, Macron says

Even if patent protections are eased, manufacturers in places like Africa are not now equipped to make COVID-19 vaccines — so donations of shots should be prioritized instead, Macron said.

Many other leaders chimed in — though few expressed direct support. Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio wrote on Facebook that the U.S. announcement was "a very important signal" and that the world needs "free access" to patents for the vaccines.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called the U.S. position "great news" but did not directly respond to a question about whether his country would support a waiver.

Canada's International Trade Minister Mary Ng told the House of Commons on Thursday that the federal government will "actively participate" in talks to waive the global rules that protect vaccine trade secrets.

International Development Minister Karina Gould said the U.S. support for waiving patents is "a really important step in this conversation."

Russian President Vladimir Putin said his country would support the waiver proposal.

In closed-door talks at the WTO in recent months, Australia, Britain, Canada, the European Union, Japan, Norway, Singapore and the United States had opposed the waiver idea, according to a Geneva-based trade official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Some 80 countries, mostly developing ones, have supported the proposal, the official said. China and Russia — two other major COVID-19 vaccine makers — didn't express a position but were open to further discussion, the official said. 

Brazil was the only developing country to oppose it, while China and Russia didn't express a position either way but were open to more discussions, the official said.

The EU Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, said the 27-nation bloc was ready to talk about the waiver idea, but remained noncommittal for now.

German Health Minister Jens Spahn said all countries where vaccines are produced must be prepared to export it to others.

EU leaders said the bloc will start discussing whether they should join the U.S. move, possibly at a summit that starts Friday.

With files from Reuters, CBC News and The Canadian Press

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