Von Der Leyen calls on US to match EU vaccine exports
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said she’s open to discussing President Joe Biden’s proposal to waive patents on Covid-19 vaccines, but that the U.S. needs to dramatically ramp up the number of shots it’s exporting in the short term.
Von der Leyen said vaccine manufacturers in the European Union have exported about half of the shots they’ve produced, some 200 million in total, and urged the U.S. to match that effort.
“We invite all those who engage in the debate for a waiver for IP rights also to join us to commit to be willing to export a large share of what is being produced in that region,” von der Leyen said at a press conference in Porto during a summit of EU leaders on Friday.
The U.S. has so far gobbled up nearly all of the doses produced on its soil. It has sent 4.2 million AstraZeneca shots -- which aren’t authorized for use in the U.S. -- to Mexico and Canada and says it plans to ship another 60 million of those doses by the end of June. The doses are undergoing a safety review. Pfizer Inc. has also begun fulfilling non-U.S. orders from its U.S. production, but hasn’t said how many doses it has shipped or which countries have received them.
“The European Union is the only continental, democratic region of this world that is exporting on a large scale,” von der Leyen said.
Growing European opposition to the U.S. stance is putting Biden on the spot while also stirring debate in Europe about the wisdom of seeking to waive intellectual-property rights for vaccines, which would require a lengthy process at the World Trade Organization. It’s also exposing long-simmering tensions over U.S. vaccine nationalism, which has left the EU and others to carry the weight of meeting global demand.
France, Germany and the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, have signaled discomfort with the idea, while Spain indicated support. Drugmakers warned that waiving intellectual-property rights will harm efforts to counter the pandemic.
French President Emmanuel Macron reprimanded the U.S. and the U.K. on Friday for blocking the export of shots and the raw materials needed to make them.
“Today the Anglo-Saxons are blocking many of these ingredients and these vaccines,” Macron said. “Today 100% of the vaccines produced in the U.S. go to the American market.”
Echoing similar comments from Berlin on Thursday, he said sharing intellectual property isn’t the immediate issue. “You can give IP to labs who don’t know how to produce it, and they won’t produce it tomorrow,” Macron said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has dismissed the proposal. Her health minister, Jens Spahn, said the problem is not patents but production capacity and availability. He also took a swipe at Washington.
“I would be pleased if the U.S. were prepared, just like the European Union, to release doses produced in the U.S. for export,” Spahn said in Berlin. “The EU produces for the world, in the knowledge that we are only safe when everyone in the world is safe.”
At a working dinner on Friday night, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi backed the call for countries like the U.S. to remove obstacles to exports, according to an official who declined to be named in line with policy.Draghi told fellow-leaders that he favors the U.S. proposal on waiving patents.
Pharmaceutical companies have received enormous funding from governments, so it is almost to be expected that they should give back at least a part to people in need. But for the proposal to be realistic, two problems must be tackled – making production secure, and the incredible complexity of the production process, Draghi said.
Other EU officials are skeptical that the U.S. proposal can meaningfully address the vaccine shortage faced by many countries, arguing that there has been no example so far of intellectual-property protections limiting supply. WTO negotiations could take many months or longer, the officials said.
Instead, the priority should be scaling up manufacturing capacity by freeing up supply chains, exports of key inputs and ingredients, the EU officials said. Crucially, they should work to connect companies with the patents and know-how to produce the vaccine with any spare manufacturing capacity around the world.
Biden’s move has proven popular within his Democratic Party and could ultimately serve as leverage over pharmaceutical companies.
Jeff Zients, the president’s Covid-19 response coordinator, said Friday that supporting a waiver is “the right thing to do” but that the waiver alone won’t give the world enough vaccine.
“That’s why we will continue to ramp up our efforts -- working with the private sector and all possible partners -- to expand vaccine manufacturing and distribution around the world and increase, as you point out, the important supplies, the raw materials, the equipment needed to make the vaccines,” Zients said in Washington.