Brussels, 23 February 2021 – Ahead of a European Council meeting on 25-26 February, Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) urged the European Union (EU) to take urgent action to promote greater global access to COVID-19 vaccines and other lifesaving health technologies. For equitable distribution of all COVID-19 medical tools, the EU must stop blocking the intellectual property (IP) waiver proposal at the World Trade Organization (WTO) and facilitate the transfer of health and vaccine technologies by pharmaceutical corporations in Europe to manufacturers in low- and middle-income countries.
At the start of the pandemic, EU leaders set out bold aims that provided hope for a global response to fight the pandemic. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen described the COVID-19 vaccine as “our universal common good.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron called for widespread production globally “without hassle with intellectual property rights.” Unfortunately, the EU’s actions have contradicted these ambitions, at times hindering other countries’ ability to control the pandemic.
The EU has reserved billions of vaccine doses for itself, undermining global equitable access. Recent commitments by some G7 members to share doses must urgently catalyse all EU member states to follow suit immediately to ensure all frontline healthcare workers and high-risk groups are protected. However, such commitments will not resolve the vast global inequity, nor address the need to facilitate diverse supply and production globally.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, MSF teams have been providing COVID-19 treatment and prevention in different communities throughout the southern African region, including in South Africa, Eswatini, Malawi and Mozambique. With the onset of the second wave and new variants of the coronavirus in the region, these countries are struggling to respond to this pandemic that is overwhelming their health systems. While many wealthy countries started vaccinating their health workers and other priority groups more than two months ago, Eswatini, Malawi and Mozambique have still not received a single dose of vaccine to protect their frontline health staff.
“During this historic time, when nearly every person in the world needs the COVID-19 vaccine, promises of global solidarity and equitable distribution must not ring hollow – they must be met with bold, concrete actions,” said Dr Christos Christou, MSF International President. “The EU’s strategy of producing the vaccines in Europe cannot currently cover EU needs, let alone global demand, and its upholding of the conventional intellectual property system stifles global production of critical medical tools. The EU has the political responsibility to enable and allow any country to freely produce essential health tools, particularly vaccines, to control this unprecedented pandemic. It’s time for the EU and its leaders to commit to unhindered sharing of technology with manufacturers in low- and middle-income countries.”
Most pharmaceutical corporations have so far failed to voluntarily share their technology and know-how to boost the global production of medical tools, out of commercial interest. In order to produce and supply the unprecedented volumes of COVID-19 vaccines required to vaccinate the whole world, the EU should require corporations and developers to openly share essential health technologies with manufacturers in low- and middle-income countries, particularly for the mRNA vaccines, which are significantly simpler to produce than traditional vaccines. The mRNA vaccines can also be manufactured at relatively low cost and are easier to adapt to new viral variants, an important asset in this pandemic. Thermostable versions are currently being developed. If technology and starting materials are shared globally, pharmaceutical companies, even without prior expertise in vaccine production, would be able to produce them in record time.
Additionally, the EU has been consistently opposing the IP waiver to the WTO initiated by India and South Africa, which seeks to temporarily waive some of the critical legal barriers that other manufacturers face in producing COVID-19 treatments, vaccines, tests and personal protective equipment. Shortages of such products have been reported throughout this pandemic and underscore how production and supply are controlled and restricted by IP holders. As most countries will face a long delay before having access to effective vaccines, improving countries’ access to COVID-19 tools such as protective equipment, diagnostics, and potential treatments without IP restrictions is essential.
“The EU’s self-centered attitude is only resulting in further scarcity of supply due to an unnecessary global dependency on select manufacturers, and is self-defeating in the struggle against this global pandemic,” said Yuanqiong Hu, Senior Legal and Policy Advisor, MSF Access Campaign. “Through the waiver at the WTO, more than 100 countries are requesting the possibility to legally produce and import the health products they require without intellectual property restrictions. That the EU thwarts efforts to independently produce and import health products, while most low- and middle-income countries lack necessary tools in this pandemic, is irresponsible and incomprehensible. We can’t let history repeat itself and go down the same path where we pretend patents and other intellectual property barriers aren’t a problem. The EU must take action now to stop blocking this waiver.”