The United States and Germany disagree on the issue of exemptions for Covid-19 vaccines patents, as Berlin argued that an exemption would not increase production and inhibit future private sector research.
The disagreement is the first major rift between the two economic powers since Joe Biden took office and threatens to block discussions at the World Trade Organization (WTO) and sour relations within the G7 group of major industrialized democracies.
Any WTO decision on an exemption would have to be by consensus, so Germany’s opposition is a major obstacle to the suspension of intellectual property rights on vaccines.
The Biden administration’s announcement on Wednesday that it would support an exemption on vaccine patents was greeted by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a step toward greater global equity at a time when poor countries have little access to vaccines and South Asia has been hit by a devastating outbreak. India accounted for 46% of the new Covid-19 cases recorded worldwide during the past week, and there are signs that the wave is spreading to Nepal, Sri Lanka and other neighboring states.
But Angela Merkel’s government came out against an exemption on Thursday.
“The US suggestion to lift patent protection for Covid-19 vaccines has significant implications for vaccine production as a whole,” said a government spokeswoman.
“The limiting factors in vaccine production are production capacities and high quality standards and not patents,” he added, arguing that the companies were already working with partners to boost manufacturing capacity.
“The protection of intellectual property is a source of innovation and should continue to be so in the future.”
US Secretary of State Tony Blinken said the patent exemption was just one of several means the administration was seeking to intensify the fight to contain the pandemic.
“The main thing is that we have to accelerate this,” Blinken told MSNBC during a visit to Ukraine. “On the current trajectory, if we don’t do more, if the whole world doesn’t do more, the world will not be vaccinated until 2024. We can accelerate this and achieve it, I think, in much less time. And if we do, we will all be better. “
Drug companies reacted angrily to the US decision and shares of Chinese and US vaccine makers fell. Some countries also expressed amazement in private, with one diplomat accusing the United States of bombast in offering simplistic crowd-pleasing solutions to long-term problems.
In normal times, patents preserve the profits of multinational companies that make drugs and vaccines, making it illegal for rivals to produce cheap knockoff versions for up to 20 years. But amid a pandemic in which the WHO says no one is safe until everyone is safe, activists say there is a powerful moral argument for getting rid of them.
Biden’s waiver announcement has divided the European Union. Emmanuel Macron said he was “absolutely in favor” of the measure, marking a change for France, which had previously argued that a patent exemption would discourage innovation.
The head of the European commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said the bloc was open to debate. He noted that the EU vaccination effort was accelerating, with 30 Europeans vaccinated every second, while exporting more than 200 million doses. Von der Leyen said that Europe “is also ready to discuss any proposal that addresses the crisis in an effective and pragmatic way.”
“That is why we are ready to discuss how the United States’ proposal for an exemption on the protection of intellectual property for Covid-19 vaccines could help achieve that goal,” he said.
The head of the panel reviewing WHO’s handling of the pandemic, Helen Clark, the former prime minister of New Zealand, earlier called on countries that have obstructed the temporary suspension of intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines, such as the United Kingdom, Switzerland and EU states, to follow the example of the United States and support the initiative.
She described the Biden administration’s announcement as a game changer and said drug companies that had received billions in public money now need to spread the word to increase vaccine production.
“When America moves, it is such a powerful signal,” Clark told the BBC. “One would hope that the UK, the EU and Switzerland and others who have been obstructing the discussion on the exemption would have to say: ‘Yes, we are prepared to negotiate.’
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex entered the debate on Thursday, calling on Covid vaccine manufacturers to act with “responsibility and leadership” and increase the allocation of doses distributed to the poorest parts of the world.
Harry and Meghan have written an open letter to the CEOs of pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca urging them to redouble their support for the UN-sponsored Covax program.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism