Médecins Sans Frontières Slams EU Counter-Proposal To TRIPS Waiver 
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen suggests that the EU’s counter-proposal to the TRIPS waiver offers “concrete short and medium term solutions to ensure universal access at affordable prices”.

Humanitarian organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has criticised the European Union’s (EU) opposition to the TRIPS waiver, labelling its counter-proposal published on Friday as a “manoeuvre” to replace a concrete legal solution to COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing.

Ahead of next week’s TRIPS council meeting scheduled for 8-9 June, Senior Legal and Policy Advisor at MSF’s Access Campaign, Yuanqiong Hu, said the EU’s counter proposal not only ignored critical corrections needed to overcome the shortcomings of existing rules, but also failed to address access to a sustainable supply of tests and other life saving devices beyond vaccines and therapeutics.

The EU has consistently opposed India and South Africa’s proposal at the World Trade Organization (WTO) to temporarily waive certain intellectual property rules under the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS Agreement), a measure that would expand access to lifesaving vaccines and other health products. 

Their entrenched position comes despite growing support for the TRIPS waiver – including an indication by the US that it was willing to move to text-based negotiations on the proposal.

On Friday, the EU published its proposal to WTO members for a multilateral trade action plan to expand the production of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments, and ensure universal and fair access. 

The EU remains adamant that, while it is open to discussing options that could help end the pandemic, the TRIPS waiver is not the solution. 

“(The EU) is not convinced that this would provide the best immediate response to reach the objective of the widest and timely distribution of COVID-19 vaccines that the world urgently needs” the body said in a statement.

Key to the new proposal is a need for voluntary licences to facilitate the expansion of production and sharing of expertise. 

“Where voluntary cooperation fails, compulsory licences, whereby a government grants a targeted licence allowing a willing producer to make a vaccine without the consent of a patent holder, are a legitimate tool in the context of a pandemic,” states the proposal.

EU Proposal Fails to Extend Beyond Vaccines

Highlighting the EU’s counter-proposal, European Commission Executive Vice-President and Commissioner for Trade, Valdis Dombrovskis, warned against “complacency” as the world continues to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the main problems currently, is the lack of sufficient manufacturing capacity to rapidly produce the required quantities of COVID-19 vaccines. 

“We need to urgently concentrate on proposals that accelerate the equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines worldwide, said Dombrovskis, adding that: “In this respect, a strong multilateral trade response could deliver a huge boost in the fight against COVID-19.”

“The objective must be to ensure that any available and adequate manufacturing capacity anywhere in the world is used for the COVID-19 vaccines production.”

MSF’s Hu however called out the EU’s resistance to the TRIPS waiver, pointing out that its reference to compulsory licensing is already permitted in the current provisions and practices of the TRIPS Agreement.

“The EU’s counter-proposal to the TRIPS waiver is a manoeuvre to push for voluntary actions of pharmaceutical corporations as a solution to replace a concrete legal solution backed by more than 100 countries,” said Hu.

According to Hu, MSF’s analysis has found that compulsory licenses alone would not be enough to achieve urgent access to lifesaving COVID-19 medical tools, even for the EU itself, during the pandemic.   

Importantly, said Hu, the EU counter-proposal only applies to patent barriers and fails to address intellectual property (IP) barriers that need to be waived when countries and manufacturers seek to scale up the manufacturing and supply of COVID-19 vaccines, medicines and other health technologies. 

“It also fails to mention the need to ensure access to a sustainable supply of tests and other life saving devices beyond vaccines and therapeutics,” said Hu.

“Concrete Short and Medium Solution” to Vaccine Manufacturing

However, EC President Ursula von der Leyen said the EU’s counter-proposal offers “concrete short and medium term solutions to ensure universal access at affordable prices”.

“Beyond the current crisis, it is important to ensure global preparedness for future pandemics: diversifying manufacturing so that it is not centralised only in a handful of countries and strengthening the resilience of the healthcare infrastructure in least developed countries,” said von der Leyen.

The EU’s proposal is based on trade facilitation and disciplines on export restrictions, support for the expansion of production, and clarifying and simplifying the use of compulsory licences during crisis times”.

Elements of the proposal include limiting the use of export restrictions for vaccine-producing countries and keeping supply chains open and uninterrupted; calling on governments to encourage and support vaccine manufacturers and developers to expand production and ensure the affordable supply of vaccines to low- and middle-income countries. 

“Such actions could include licensing agreements, the sharing of expertise, tiered pricing including non-profit sales to low-income countries, contract manufacturing and new investments in manufacturing facilities in developing countries,” states the proposal.

Image Credits: R Santos/HP Watch.

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