The European Union, Led by Germany’s Chancellor Merkel, Chokes Off Progress on Intellectual Property Waiver at the WTO, Blocking Vaccine Access in Sub-Saharan African and Across Global South While Delta Variant Rages

President Biden’s Bystander Role Aids and Abets this Unconscionable Obstruction

The European Union (EU), UK, Switzerland, along with a coterie of other fence-sitting nations, including the US, are blocking meaningful progress on a revised waiver proposal at the World Trade Organization (WTO) that would temporarily remove intellectual property protections on COVID-19 related health products thereby allowing expanded globally distributed production of life-saving medical supplies for countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean. The latest outcomes of TRIPS Council negotiations regarding this waiver proposal make it plain: while 60% more transmissible delta-variant COVID-19 is surging with a ferocity heretofore unseen in countries in the global South, wealthy countries are turning their backs. This is a crime against humanity, no matter the concerned platitudes of politicians.   

In 2020, wealthy countries pushed other countries aside and hoarded excessive vaccines, medicines, testing, ventilators, and PPE supplies. Now they are planning the same for future booster and variant vaccines, and for possible COVID-19 therapeutics such as molnupiravir. Instead of using the power of government to force pharmaceutical manufacturers to act in the interest of humanity, they are catering to every whim of the industry. 

Preposterously, rich countries in Europe are arguing that intellectual property monopolies are the solution—not the problem.  The EU pontificates that countries facing shortages should be content with existing patent law flexibilities and makes vague promises that it will collaborate with vaccine and pharmaceutical producers convincing them to voluntarily engage in “mutually beneficial” technology sharing with capable and compliant partners of their choice.  The fact that vaccine rights holders have “voluntarily” allowed capable manufacturing facilities around the world to lie idle for more than one year and that vaccine monopolists have stated their intention to tightly control their trade secret protected vaccine technologies are facts the EU prefers to ignore.  Instead, the EU argues that waiving sacrosanct trade secret protections will have no effect, even though the waiver proposal will free countries to: a) share complex manufacturing know-how and quality control protocols routinely disclosed in vaccine companies’ regulatory filings and b) free countries to mandate sharing of trade secrets and confidential information.

Meanwhile, people in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean are gasping for breath as the EU drags its feet in Geneva, debating which COVID-19 health products are “essential” and which articles in the TRIPS agreement are obstacles.  Billions of people are without life-saving vaccines and medicines and without tools to test for COVID-19 or to protect themselves from exposure.  The Director General of the WTO, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has made it clear that existing manufacturing capacity in the global South is going untapped, while the current dismal trajectory of inequity means there is no hope of reaching the imminently reasonable target of 40% of all people being vaccinated by the end of  2021.   And, as we saw in India last month and in Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, Namibia and many other countries in sub-Saharan Africa today, people are flooding to overcrowded hospitals, desperately struggling to breathe as their oxygen levels plummet and oxygen supplies run out.

Chancellor Merkel of Germany is forcing EU recalcitrance at the WTO, as she proudly and nationalistically praises Germany’s allegedly homegrown BioNTech and Curvax mRNA vaccines.  Her state visit to Washington to meet with President Biden on July 15th should be met with protest against Germany’s cruel indifference to vaccine inequity in the global South.

But the US, after initially announcing its support for an intellectual property waiver for vaccines in May, has been sitting on the sidelines in Geneva offering meaningless three-sentence pablum that it is “open to all pragmatic proposals” and is “looking forward to progress.”  Empty words in the midst of a ferocious wave of 60% more transmissible COVID-19 crashing upon communities with zero doses of any vaccine, is about the same as the outright obstruction of Germany. In fact, the US risks becoming a complicit bystander to Merkel’s vaccine apartheid, despite President Biden’s previous rhetorical support for expanded, expedited, and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines and health supplies globally.  

Every day that WTO talks drag on, thousands of people die.  Every day that COVID-19 intellectual property barriers remain and technology transfer does not occur, people struggle for oxygen, for treatment, for the protection and security that millions of people in wealthy countries enjoy.  Every day that rich countries sit on unused supplies and hoard even more vaccines for the future, people in vaccine and treatment deserts suffer and die unnecessarily.

Merkel, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and Biden say that they want countries to be able to use TRIPS flexibilities, but they are undermining the explicit flexibility that the South Africa, India, and a hundred-plus supporters seek – a WTO-compliant, temporary waiver on intellectual property protections to allow countries to overcome the extraordinary global pandemic whose variants threaten us all.

The EU, UK, and US have been promoting limited compulsory licensing flexibilities that only address patents and that are, even then, unequal to the task. They have also been promoting voluntary collaboration with the pharmaceutical industry, even though such efforts have only resulted in artificially restricted supplies. Instead, obstructionist countries must support the adoption of a simple and comprehensive waiver by the time of the WTO General Council on July 27-28.  They should also get on with the momentous task of facilitating, incentivizing, or forcing full technology transfer, building vaccine manufacturing hubs in all regions of the world, and ensuring funding health service delivery needed to end this viral plague.