EU Chief Defends Vaccine Patents as ‘Precious’ as South Africa Demands Waiver

Jerri-Lynn here. Despite the Biden administration pledge to press for a patent waiver under the WTO’s TRIPS agreement for coronavirus patents, big Pharma lobbying and EU intransigence has insured that nothing fundamental has changed. This inaction has prevented African countries and other developing countries,  including India – which before the pandemic  was a world leading vaccine producer –  from ramping up production of coronavirus vaccines.  Up until the present, Africa has imported 99% of its coronavirus vaccines, and more than 80% of its population has yet to receive a single coronavirus vaccine dose.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on Friday warned that existing IIP protections could undermine the work of a WHO-backed technology transfer hub in South Africa, which has created an mRNA vaccine, based on a  Moderna vaccine model.

By Jake Johnson. Originally published at Common Dreams

The head of the European Commission on Friday defended coronavirus-related intellectual property protections as “precious” after South Africa’s president reiterated his support for a temporary patent waiver, arguing the step is necessary to ramp up vaccine production on the African continent.

“It is not acceptable that Africa is consistently at the back of the queue in relation to access to medicines.”

Speaking at the E.U.-African Union summit in Brussels, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen argued that instead of suspending vaccine-related intellectual property protections, world leaders should focus on technology transfer and compulsory licensing—a more narrow approach that public health experts and campaigners have long rejected as inadequate.

“Here I think we can find a bridge,” said von der Leyen, whose communications with and ties to the pharmaceutical industry have come under growing scrutiny in recent weeks.

Von der Leyen’s comments came minutes after South African President Cyril Ramaphosa insisted that efforts to develop mRNA-based coronavirus vaccines on the African continent have “been hampered by intellectual property barriers” established under the World Trade Organization’s TRIPS Agreement.

To date, Africa has been forced to import 99% of its coronavirus vaccines. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 80% of Africa’s population has yet to receive a single coronavirus vaccine dose.

“This for us is a serious matter,” said Ramaphosa, who warned that IP protections could undermine the work of a WHO-backed technology transfer hub in South Africa, which has created an mRNA vaccine using Moderna’s coronavirus shot as a model.

On Friday, the WHO announced that six African countries—Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, and Tunisia—will be the first recipients of mRNA technology from the Cape Town hub, which expects safety trials for the new mRNA vaccine to begin later this year.

“This announcement marks a welcome milestone on the road to expanding vaccine manufacturing capacity in lower- and middle-income countries,” Kate Stegeman, advocacy coordinator with the Médecins Sans Frontières Access Campaign, said in a statement. “It’s encouraging to see the mRNA technology transfer hub getting closer to developing and validating the world’s first open-access mRNA vaccine production platform.”

But in the absence of an IP waiver, the burgeoning tech-transfer initiative could face legal challenges from pharmaceutical giants such as Moderna, which has been granted at least three mRNA vaccine patents in South Africa. The company has thus far refused to cooperate with the WHO’s mRNA hub, which is currently working with facilities in Argentina and Brazil in an effort to further expand vaccine production capacity across the Global South.

Stéphane Bancel, Moderna’s billionaire CEO, told Reuters Thursday that his firm has “not decided yet” whether it will enforce its patents in low- and middle-income countries once it deems the global pandemic over.

Edwin Ikhuoria, the ONE Campaign’s Africa executive director, argued that a “blanket IP waiver, right now, is the only guarantee that people will not sue.”

During his remarks at the E.U.-Africa summit on Friday, Ramaphosa said that “governments that are really serious about ensuring that the world has access to vaccines should ensure that we approve the TRIPS waiver as we have put forward, rather than hide behind IP, the profitability of originators.”

The waiver proposal has been stuck in largely fruitless WTO negotiations since October 2020 due to opposition from rich nations, including Germany and other powerful E.U. member countries. The Biden administration has also faced criticism for taking a passive approach to WTO negotiations after endorsing the proposed patent waiver last year.

“We are facing a global pandemic, a global pandemic that will stay with us for a long time,” said Ramaphosa. “And all that has been asked for is that a TRIPS waiver should be done within a set period of time so as to enable those countries that do not have easy access to vaccines to have access to vaccines.”

“We are talking about the lives of millions, hundreds of millions, of people rather than the profitability of the few companies,” he continued. “It is not acceptable that Africa is consistently at the back of the queue in relation to access to medicines. While we appreciate the donations, they are never a sustainable way or mechanism to build resilience.  Help to empower us, let us tackle obstacles together.”

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  1. NotTimothyGeithner

    The colonial mindset won’t die until the colonial power is openly defeated. Lula winning in October is probably going to have repercussions. I wonder if that is driving US action in Europe.

  2. petal

    I think it will have to be pried from their proverbial cold, dead hands. There’s a ridiculous amount of money riding on the mRNA technology-vaccines/tx for all sorts of maladies. This is their big future meal ticket-a new way of treating other diseases. Covid was the crack in the wall. I subscribe to the daily Fierce newsletters that cover pharma and biotech happenings, and Pfizer’s been going on a buying spree with their new riches, as well. Pfizer and Moderna are not going to give it up. (Sorry for not being very coherent-very tired this morning.)

  3. Lee

    Of all the currently available vaccines and those in development, has it been definitively established that mRNA vaccines provide the most effective, long-lasting protection?

    There are quite a few alternatives including the protein based patent-free Corbevax, which for some odd reason received little funding, five vaccines developed in Cuba that uses older tried and true vaccine technology, and others.

    Worth noting, one of the developers of Corbevax,
    Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi, was recently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

    1. lordkoos

      Yes – it’s not like MNRA is the be-all and end-all of vaccine tech when it comes to COVID. I am wondering why Cuba does not make their vaccine available to developing nations to manufacture?

      1. Sameer

        Cuba is, while progress is hampered by delays in securing WHO approval, they have announced deals with Vietnam, Venezuala and Iran so far:

        And FWIW Nicaragua in addition to receiving Cuban vaccines is also producing a Russian vaccine COVIVAC domestically.

  4. bernie karpf


    With all the money that the vaccine makers are, purportedly, making—– how come the Biotech sector is one of the poorest performing in the stock market?

    FBIOX (fidelity’s bio mutual fund) is down 27%in one year.

    How does it work? Does the cream rise to the top, with the shareholders, taking losses? How is the profits hidden —- or—-is there not that much profit? color me, confused

    1. petal

      By nature, the biotech sector is very volatile. It is hard to hit a home run. You can get something to phase 2 or 3 and then it fails, and you’re out. It might look very promising going in, but until it gets FDA approval, right? Very few drugs make it to market, and there’s a high cash burn rate. It’s kind of like finding a needle in a haystack.
      One of the things also affecting FBIOX may be that clinical trials for anything non-covid were pretty much put on hold for a while. Plus, maybe people shifted money towards a few covid-related companies like Pfizer, Moderna, etc that looked more like a sure thing in the short-term.

      1. bernie karpf

        Thanks, i don’t know how to read a companies balance sheet.

        i did take a look at Moderna, and it returned -14% past 52 weeks. PFE returned +40%past 52 weeks.

        When i google the profits of each company – it shows they both made tens of billions. And thats from web reporting from newspapers. Doesn’t seem logical that MRNA returned minus -14% over past 52 weeks with so much profit. i dunno.

  5. Mikel

    Africa is more off grid than alot of other countries so the shots aren’t useful for all the other controls they want to use the them as an excuse for implementing. So they are in no rush.

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