These days there’s a lot of discussion around the proposal put forward by US President Joe Biden’s administration to suspend vaccine patents in an exceptional way. This aim is to ensure greater access to vaccines for less developed and poorer countries that are still struggling with the pandemic.
These countries are often unable to enter into agreements in time with pharmaceutical companies, or simply lack the resources to afford them. The proposal has been met with timid support from the Heads of State and Government in some European countries, such as France and Belgium.
The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said she was ready to discuss the option. While a firm ‘no’, however, came from German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
To judge whether the removal of patents on vaccines is a good idea, one must start from two fundamental facts. The first of which is that the virus has a proven ability to adapt rapidly, resulting in the many variants we have seen (English, Brazilian, South African, Indian etc.).
The only way to limit these variants is for the majority of the world's population to be vaccinated as soon as possible. However, it is actually impossible - and completely undesirable - to shut down the international flow of people and goods.
“Such a decision would strongly disincentivise private investors and would effectively undermine the European sector's ability to be a world leader in research”
While the multiplication of variants drastically lowers the effectiveness of vaccines administered in richer countries, including Europe, it is therefore, and entirely in our best interest, vital that the widest possible portion of the entire world is vaccinated as soon as possible.
The second fact is that the production of vaccines, especially those proven to be most effective such as Pfizer and Moderna, is an extremely complex process. Pfizer or Moderna could be stripped of their patents. They may even want to give them away to anyone who wants to use them.
But this does not mean that less developed and poorer countries would be able to produce them and, more importantly, produce them in the quantities needed. To make an analogy: imagine if NASA or Elon Musk published the construction plans of the Starship rocket. Very few countries, or perhaps none, would be capable of building it.
Therefore, there are good reasons to believe that the removal of patents on vaccines, even if temporary or exceptional, is not a good idea - especially for Europe. First of all, if the European Commission decided to align itself with the US proposal, it would go in clear contrast with the European values of the Single Market and the European Way of Life (for the promotion of which there is also a European Commissioner).
In fact, there would be no incentive for pharmaceutical companies to conduct research, not only into COVID-19 (let's not forget that much still needs to be done to achieve an effective and minimally invasive therapeutic treatment in case of infection and severe symptoms) but also for future pandemic crises that, in a globalised world, are unfortunately entirely predictable.
But the negative effects would not stop with pandemic crises. What would happen if one day, hopefully very near, an extremely effective anti-cancer drug was discovered by a pharmaceutical company? Would patents be suspended yet again? It is obvious that investment in cancer drug research would be drastically reduced.
I strongly believe that the US position is short-sighted in this case, and to align with it would mean thwarting efforts to build an autonomous, strategic, and resilient European pharmaceutical sector. Such a decision would strongly disincentivise private investors and would effectively undermine the European sector's ability to be a world leader in research.
We must remember that the United States has contributed very marginally to the export of vaccine doses, unlike the European Union which has exported 200 million doses, as many as the US has administered to its own citizens. Suspending the patents is a very hypocritical decision.
If the United States really wants to help eradicate the virus from the world, the only thing they have to do is heavily subsidise, with public money, the production of a large number of vaccines by their pharmaceutical companies. “Giving” the patent to these countries is a cynical way of appearing good and humanitarian, without contributing in any way to actually helping them.
“We Europeans must provide a vision of the future, always ensuring that the principle of fairness is correctly combined with the rules of the free market, the only true engine of progress and innovation”
A European Union that wants to gain prominence in the global geopolitical arena must therefore be very firm in urging the United States to increase exports. A strong Union is one that sets the standard for fruitful public-private collaboration in medical and scientific research and production.
We must have the lucidity to look at this issue from a broader perspective, recognising also that the removal of patents would set a dangerous precedent at the global level and would guarantee our competitors, primarily China, a very dangerous full disclosure at the political and strategic level.
Let us not fall into the trap of having our political agenda dictated only by the urgencies of the moment. We Europeans must provide a vision of the future, always ensuring that the principle of fairness is correctly combined with the rules of the free market, the only true engine of progress and innovation. Only in this way will we be able to guarantee peace, prosperity, and a solid future to the European next generation.