The European Parliament’s Development (DEVE) Committee on Thursday saw international experts and EU policymakers discuss the issue of increasing vaccination in developing countries.
One of the central themes discussed whether the agreement deadlocking vaccine patents should be lifted to address this issue.
The EU has been a key player in the global Covid-19 response and vaccination strategy thanks partly to the bloc’s participation in the COVAX vaccine procurement facility, which was set up by the EU and World Health Organisation at the start of the pandemic in 2020.
According to statistics presented during the meeting, out of 50 a third of those vaccinated globally have been jabbed thanks to exports or donation from Europe.
Access to vaccines will continue to be a priority in 2022, and DEVE members have called for vaccines to be rolled out more swiftly and for the continued promotion of vaccine equity and manufacturing in developing countries.
COVAX is committed to ensuring 70 percent of the world’s population is vaccinated by the next United Nations General Assembly in September 2022. That means that an emphasis needs to be placed on the vaccination of Africa, which is not yet at 10 percent.
"We are witnesses to how the market and the multinationals are unable to respond to this health emergency. The model that we have only encourages and favours inequality" — Miguel Urbán Crespo, The Left Group
Low vaccination rates stem from several factors, such as lack of access, health infrastructure or vaccine hesitancy. While some parts of the world are administering fourth doses, others have not yet received a single dose.
Eva Kadilli, the Director of UNICEF’s Supply Division, outlined some of the bottlenecks to increasing global vaccination rates, citing the availability of syringes, lack of storage facilities, ad-hoc national planning, lack of vaccination campaigns and strategies and limited trained staff at local levels.
For these reasons, she explained, more than 100 million vaccines were rejected in December 2021 alone.
MEPs focused on another central issue – patents, namely the World Trade Organisation’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) which is currently deadlocking vaccine patents.
Waiving TRIPS would allow for the local manufacturing of vaccines. To those who support this action, in the European Parliament and in the field of human rights, it is key to equalise and increase global vaccination rates. “If we had local production, it would solve the problem of access and of distribution,” said MEP Antoni Comín.
The Parliament had voted in favour of the temporary lifting of intellectual property rights protection for COVID-19 vaccines to accelerate global vaccine rollout. However, this vote has been blocked by the EU Council and Commission.
Miguel Urbán Crespo, from the Parliament’s Left Group, said; “We are witnesses to how the market and the multinationals are unable to respond to this health emergency. The model that we have only encourages and favours inequality.”
Crespo referred to the recent publication by Human Rights Watch identifying over 100 installations in the Asia, Africa and South America suitable for local vaccine manufacturing. This means that if the intellectual property rights were lifted, these locations would potentially be able to start manufacturing their own vaccines.
“It is not entirely fair to say we are against removing the patent, but we also see need to preserve the revenues on this patent, provided they are reasonable, to finance the research that we need on future variants and future vaccines,” Olivier Bailly, EEAS Deputy Managing Director for Global Issues
Barry Andrews from the Renew Group argued that the waiver on the TRIPS Agreement would be beneficial for bringing investment and good governance into places the EU wants to see development in. “I believe the European Union is on the wrong side of history on this issue,” he added.
Olivier Bailly, Deputy Managing Director for Global Issues at the European External Action Service, responded directly to the concerns raised by the MEPs.
“It is not entirely fair to say we are against removing the patent, but we also see need to preserve the revenues on this patent, provided they are reasonable, to finance the research that we need on future variants and future vaccines,” he said.
“It’s easy for many to say, ‘let’s remove the patent’. But it is not so easy to do so, legally and financially. But be sure that the EU is trying its best to compromise,” Bailly added.
The Managing Director of Resource Mobilisation at Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance organisation, Marie-Ange Saraka-Yao stated that local production and transfer of knowledge takes a long time.
“In the short term, we need to use existing producers to vamp up to make sure we give priority to low-income countries.” Therefore, removing the patent would not be an effective solution to reach global vaccination goals, she explained.
The idea of waiving the patent came up when the number of vaccines and their production was more limited, Bailly pointed out, but the landscape in 2022 is very different.
“The estimated number of vaccines for this year goes beyond 20 billion doses. To vaccinate the world we need 11 billion vaccines, which will lower price per vaccine and make it more accessible.” He further illustrated that with more brands, including those coming from, Cuba, Turkey and Iran, the parameters of patent waivers are changing.
Ahead of the European Union – African Union Summit in mid-February, the EU will put forward an investment package around vaccine access and local pharmaceutical production as well as an additional health package aimed at strengthening national health systems.
A key question remains however; whether the EU and the AU will be able to reach a compromise on vaccine production.