EU pushes back on Biden plan to waive coronavirus vaccine patents

PORTO, Portugal — EU leaders have a question for the President of the United States about waiving vaccine patents: So, how exactly is this going to go, Joe?

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Joe Biden may have set Europe on its heels with his surprise proposal to suspend intellectual property rights, but at a European Council summit in Porto, Portugal, top EU officials are pushing back hard, saying Washington has not put forward a specific plan and that, in the near term, waiving patents would not help with the immediate, urgent need to increase production.  

“On the intellectual property, we don’t think in the short term that it’s the magic bullet but we are ready to engage on this topic as soon as a concrete proposal will be put on the table,” European Council President Charles Michel said Saturday morning, summarizing a roughly three-hour dinner discussion among leaders on Friday night about the pandemic.

“We all agree that we need to do everything which is possible in order to increase everywhere in the world the production of vaccines,” Michel said.

French President Emmanuel Macron was even more pointed in calling on the U.S. and the U.K. first to take more important steps: ending de facto bans on vaccine exports; sharing technology needed to ramp up production; and donating existing doses.

“The Anglo-Saxons must first stop their export bans,” Macron said, in reference to the U.S. and the U.K.

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Waiving patents, the French president said, should be fourth on the list of priorities. “If we want to work quickly, today there isn’t one factory in the world that can’t produce doses for poor countries because of intellectual property,” Macron said, arriving at the summit. “The priority today is not intellectual property — it’s not true. We would be lying to ourselves. It’s production.”

Companies that want to produce vaccines using a waiver acknowledge that a change in intellectual property rules would not mean they could instantly start churning out doses. But they say it would be a key step in allowing more manufacturers to make the vaccines.

During the leaders’ dinner discussion, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was participating remotely by videolink, warned her colleagues that Biden’s proposal must be considered carefully, noting that a patent waiver could do more to benefit a geopolitical rival like China, which has production capacity to make use of Western mRNA technology, than it would to help needy countries in Africa obtain vaccines.

The criticism of Biden marked an escalation in the contest for supremacy in vaccine diplomacy — a geopolitical battle in which China, Russia and the U.K. are also fully engaged. And it came just as EU heads of state and government were readying for a videoconference with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a vocal advocate of waiving patent protections whose country has faced a devastating surge in infections.

European leaders have been on the defensive since Biden’s announcement, which they view as a shrewd — and somewhat maddening— public relations maneuver.

Although EU leaders had announced urgent plans to help India, Biden upstaged Europe, first by announcing donations to India of millions of doses of AstraZeneca vaccine and then by reversing course and endorsing a patent waiver. India is a pharmaceutical manufacturing powerhouse and perhaps the country best positioned to capitalize on Biden’s plan.

But the competition for influence extends beyond India. At a Friday night news conference in Porto, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen noted that the EU was already activating plans to send more than 600,000 doses to countries in the Western Balkans and was planning similar donations for countries in the Eastern Partnership group that spans Eastern Europe and the Caucasus.

That group includes Ukraine, which has pleaded with Washington for vaccine help — to no avail, and where Secretary of State Antony Blinken paid a visit just this week.

In chiding the U.S. leader for a lack of specifics, von der Leyen and other EU leaders repeatedly stressed that among democracies, only countries within the EU’s single market have been exporting large quantities of vaccines.

Asked about the patent issue, von der Leyen said: “We should be open to this discussion, but when we lead this discussion there needs to be a 360-degree view on it, because we need vaccines now for the whole world. And in the short and medium term, the IP waiver will not solve the problems, will not bring a single dose of vaccine in the short and medium term.” 

“The European Union is the only Continent or region, democratic region of this world, that is exporting large-scale, “ von der Leyen added. “Around 50 percent of what is being produced in Europe is being exported” — to the tune of some 200 million doses delivered worldwide.

Macron reiterated the point on Saturday morning, saying that waiving patents might be useful but only in conjunction with other steps.

“It’s a false debate to say this is the emergency,” Macron said. “The urgent need is to produce more and have more solidarity.” He added, “If we want to put the cart before the horse, it’s not going to work.”

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo summed up the view of EU leaders thus: “As Europeans, we don’t need to be schooled. The U.S. hasn’t exported a single vaccine in the past six months. Europe is the one that’s been producing for itself and the rest of the world these past six months.”

Hanne Cokelaere and Ashleigh Furlong contributed reporting.

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