The callous position of the EU in the access to vaccines negotiations

Despite attempts by the European Commission to stall discussion on the TRIPS waiver proposal for COVID-19 vaccines, the proposal has inched forward with support from the European Parliament and some parliaments of EU members states

June 17, 2021 by Ana Vračar
Activists with Greenpeace Switzerland projected messages outside the WTO building in Geneva to push for the approval of the TRIPS waiver (Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) for the COVID-19 vaccine and materials so countries can make the shot available to as many people as possible. Photo: Maxime Sauvant/ Greenpeace

Eight months after it was first tabled by India and South Africa at the World Trade Organization (WTO), the TRIPS waiver proposal covering vaccines and other COVID-19 health technologies is finally moving to text-based negotiations. The step happened in spite of fierce opposition of the European Commission, who is still figuring as the biggest defender of Big Pharma’s interest in the global discussion on access to vaccines.

The US announcement of its support to the TRIPS waiver dealt a heavy blow to the bloc of rich countries opposing the waiver. Soon after, the Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez sided with the Americans, followed by French President Emmanuel Macron. Several parliaments in other EU Member States have voiced their openness to discuss a suspension of intellectual property rights for products necessary to fight the pandemic, one of the latest ones being Belgium. On the other hand, countries host to the world’s biggest pharma companies, most notably Germany, are still refusing to admit the waiver is currently the best chance the world has to achieve quick and equitable vaccination.

What is noteworthy is a widening split in opinions between the European Commission and democratically elected bodies of the EU, such as the European Parliament and national parliaments. While the European Commission can be rightly called the most fierce opponent of the waiver, the European Parliament recently voted in favor of a TRIPS waiver. Although their call covers only COVID-19 vaccines and not other medical products as is the case in the original proposal, 355 Members of the EP voted in favor of a different approach to fighting the pandemic and against the EC’s hard-line. Their opinion is shared by more than over 300 representatives of European National Parliaments, who signed an appeal urging the EU and its member states to support the waiver of COVID-19 health technologies.

The People’s Vaccine and the European Citizens’ Initiative Right to Cure, among others, have dedicated months of their efforts to convince politicians in the EU to support the waiver and rallied for support among citizens, collecting over 200 thousand signatures in the EU alone. Campaigns by alliances of left parties, trade unions, and civil society have made the critique of the neoliberal model that privatizes scientific discovery within a profit making logic a mainstreaming issue.

Meanwhile, the European Commission has oriented itself towards publishing false alternatives, with the only real goal of stalling and delaying negotiations on the TRIPS waiver. In a proposal circulated in early June, the EC argues again that intellectual property rights are not a barrier to access and that rather than suspending them, the world should make the best of mechanisms that are already available. Ensuring there are no barriers to export, scaling-up production, and making use of compulsory licensing is enough, they argue.This reflects the position taken by the pharma industry, which is investing millions of euros per year in order to shape the Commission’s views.

In practice, the Commission’s proposal would surely lead to safeguarding the status quo, where rich countries control knowledge and therefore production, and exercise power over the rest of the world while boasting their charitable contributions to COVAX. In fact, donations through COVAX have been the European Commission’s favorite excuse for not supporting the TRIPS waiver proposal. From their point of view, the pandemic should not be used as a pretext for questioning rich countries’ relation to the rest of the world, and it definitely shouldn’t become an opportunity to change the current order.

The European Commission’s very own data shows that most of the exports from the European Union went predominantly to other rich countries, and has done nothing to increase access in low and middle income countries. Meanwhile, the outcome of the G7 summit in the UK squarely reflects the opponents stance, citing the importance of developing production capacities and supporting voluntary licensing – with a note suggested by France, declaring that G7 countries would contribute in a constructive fashion to the incoming round of negotiations. We’ll have a chance to see exactly how constructive very soon, with an informal TRIPS council meeting approaching on June 17, and another one at the end of the