The German Chancellor said the limiting factors in vaccine supply were “high production capacities and quality standards, not patents”.
“The protection of intellectual property is a source of innovation and it must remain so in the future,” she added.
Merkel was responding to President Joe Biden’s senior trade adviser, Katherine Tai, who said that if the United States “strongly believes” in intellectual property protections, it will support a waiver of these rules for Covid-19 vaccines.
A waiver would allow any pharmaceutical manufacturer in the world to make “mimic” vaccines without fear of prosecution for intellectual property rights infringement.
“This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures,” Tai said on Wednesday.
The United States would “actively participate” in negotiations at the World Trade Organization to craft the text of a waiver, she added, noting that such discussions would take time given the complexity of the issues at stake.
Washington’s proposal has blamed the EU. In recent months, the bloc has resisted a push led by India and South Africa in the WTO for a vaccine patent waiver.
The American decision received a cold response from Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission. She said the EU was “ready to discuss” how the proposal could help resolve the current crisis “in an efficient and pragmatic manner”.
But she also insisted that the priority was for vaccine-producing countries to remove barriers to exports and address supply chain disruptions.
Von der Leyen contrasted the EU’s approach with that of some allies: “Europe is the only democratic region in the world to export vaccines on a large scale.” The United States, a major vaccine-producing country, has reserved most of its local vaccines for home use.
The US proposal received a more positive response from Vladimir Putin, who said Russia, which manufactures the Sputnik V vaccine, would support the move. “A pandemic is an emergency. . . There is no doubt that Russia would support such an approach ”, declared the Russian president.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry said it looks forward to “having active and constructive discussions with all parties within the framework of the WTO in order to reach an effective and fair deal.”
Emmanuel Macron, the French president, said he was open to the idea of renouncing intellectual property rights, but “the reality is that the bottlenecks today are neither the price nor the patents”.
“You can transfer the intellectual property to pharmaceutical companies in Africa, but they don’t have a platform to make mRNA vaccines,” he said.
Spain indicated support for the US proposal, but said more needed to be done to provide vaccines to developing countries.
“Intellectual property cannot be an obstacle at the end of Covid-19,” said a document drafted by the office of Pedro Sánchez, Prime Minister.
The “non-paper,” which Sánchez is due to present to an EU meeting on Friday, also called on drug companies to step up voluntary licensing while a temporary intellectual property waiver is negotiated at the WTO.
Brazil’s foreign minister, who opposed the waiver proposal, said Thursday he plans to talk to Tai about the plan.
“The biggest bottleneck today, for access to vaccines, are the material limits of production capacity,” Carlos Alberto de Franco França told a Senate committee. “According to experts, vaccines are almost impossible to copy, in the short or medium term, without the support of the laboratories that developed them – even with the help of the patent. “
The idea of an exemption is also contested by BioNTech, the German start-up whose joint venture with Pfizer has marketed the first vaccine based on messenger RNA. The company said it would not alleviate current supply shortages and warned of the risks of opening up manufacturing to producers with no mRNA experience.
“In collaboration with Pfizer, we are also working with various organizations to support the delivery of vaccines to people around the world. And we will continue to deliver our vaccine to low- and lower-middle-income countries at a non-profit price, ”BioNTech said in a statement Thursday.
“However, patents are not the limiting factor for the production or supply of our vaccine. . . The mRNA manufacturing process is a complex process developed over more than a decade. “
Stéphane Bancel, CEO of Moderna, said vaccine makers would have significantly expanded their capacity before new players can make a real difference in supply.
“If you were to start today, you’re going to have to start by hiring people. These vaccines do not come from the sky, ”Bancel said Thursday at the FT US Pharma and Biotech summit. “There is no mRNA industry. . . When we hire people from the traditional pharmaceutical industry, we need to train them in the art of mRNA.
Matthias Kromeyer, general partner at venture capital firm MIG, one of BioNTech’s early investors, said a patent waiver would discourage future investment in the industry.
“If the US / EU / WHO suspends patent protection, they will lose a lot in the long run – namely the willingness of private investors to invest in such companies, many years before it does. be clear whether their technologies will succeed or not, ”he said.
“This would mean the collapse of an entire industry which has just demonstrated that it is the only one capable of providing a lasting solution to this global medical, economic and social crisis.”
Bristol-Myers Squibb chief executive called US government support for the waiver “of great concern” in an FT US Pharma and Biotech summit interview on Thursday.
“Our industry depends on the protection of intellectual property to invest in R&D and to make the investments necessary to deal with crises like Covid,” said Giovanni Caforio. “The developments of the last 24 hours are very worrying and disappointing.”
In addition to being important during the coronavirus crisis, Caforio said intellectual property protection is “essential for some of the areas with higher medical needs that BMS invests in such as cancer care.”
Additional reporting by Leila Abboud in Paris, Daniel Dombey in Madrid and Michael Pooler in São Paulo
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