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President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen talks during a press briefing on Covid-19 vaccination developments on April 14, 2021 in Brussels. (Photo: Thierry Monasse/Getty Images)

President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen talks during a press briefing on Covid-19 vaccination developments on April 14, 2021 in Brussels. (Photo: Thierry Monasse/Getty Images)

After US Reversal, EU 'Ready to Discuss' Covid-19 Vaccine Patent Waiver

Growing pressure to waive IP protections comes as a new study estimates the pandemic has actually killed 6.93 million people, more than double the reported number of global deaths.

Jessica Corbett

After the Biden administration shocked the world by expressing support for waiving intellectual property protections for Covid-19 vaccines, a European Union leader on Thursday suggested that the bloc's members "are ready to discuss" also dropping their opposition to the proposal—which rich nations have blocked since last year.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Trade Representative Katherine Tai were praised by public health experts worldwide for the announcement that the administration will now back a Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) waiver at the World Trade Organization (WTO), first proposed by India and South Africa.

Though concerns remain about future WTO negotiations, the Biden administration's move on Wednesday increased pressure on leaders of other wealthy countries—including Canada, the United Kingdom, and E.U. member states—to urgently follow suit. Then came European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen's Thursday speech at the European University Institute in Florence.

Von der Leyen first touted the bloc's exports of Covid-19 vaccines, then said that "the European Union is also ready to discuss any proposal that addresses the crisis in an effective and pragmatic manner. That is why we are ready to discuss how the U.S. proposal for a waiver on intellectual property protection for Covid-19 vaccines could help achieve that objective."

"In the short run, however, we call upon all vaccine-producing countries to allow exports and to avoid measures that disrupt supply chains," she added.

Despite the remarks from the head of the bloc's executive arm, "Germany, the E.U.'s biggest economic power and home to a large pharmaceutical sector, rejected the idea, saying vaccine shortages were due to limited production capacity and quality standards rather than patent protection issues," Reuters reported Thursday. "Health Minister Jens Spahn said he shared Biden's goal of providing the whole world with vaccines. But a government spokeswoman said in a statement that 'the protection of intellectual property is a source of innovation and must remain so in the future.'"

Others were more open to the possibility, according to Reuters:

French President Emmanuel Macron said he was "very much in favor" of opening up intellectual property. However, a French government official said vaccine shortages [were] the result of a lack of production capacity and ingredients, not of patents.

"I would remind you that it is the United States that has not exported a single dose to other countries, and is now talking about lifting the patents," the official said.

The United States has shipped a few million vaccine doses it was not using to Mexico and Canada on loan.

In a Thursday interview with MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken explained that "we wanted, first and foremost, to make sure that we were able to vaccinate the American people. And as you know, we've made remarkable progress on that. But we also know that none of us are going to be fully safe until everyone is, that is that around the world we get as many people vaccinated as possible."

Noting concerns about virus mutations that could impact even people who are vaccinated against Covid-19, Blinken told Mitchell that the administration is "looking at everything we can do to make available any excess vaccines that we have... And the patent waiver is also one possible means of increasing manufacture and access to vaccines.  We're looking at other things, too."

"But the main thing is we have to speed this up," the secretary added. "On the current trajectory, if we don't do more, if the entire world doesn't do more, the world won't be vaccinated until 2024. We can speed this up and get that done, I think, in a much shorter time. And if we do, we're all going to be better off."

International justice campaigners advocating for the WTO waiver and other efforts to boost vaccine access in lower-income countries have accused the Global North of "vaccine apartheid," highlighting that the vast majority of existing and administered doses have been "hoarded" by rich nations.

Campaigners have also called out Big Pharma, which opposes the waiver. In response to the Biden administration's announcement, Stephen J. Ubl, president and CEO of the U.S. trade group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), claimed that the waiver decision would "sow confusion between public and private partners, further weaken already strained supply chains, and foster the proliferation of counterfeit vaccines."

The waiver developments came as U.S. researchers warned that the pandemic may have killed far more people than the official global tally. The University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) revealed Thursday that "our analysis estimates that by May 3, 2021, the total number of Covid-19 deaths was 6.93 million, a figure that is more than two times higher than the reported number of deaths of 3.24 million."

IHME director Chris Murray said that "understanding the true number of Covid-19 deaths not only helps us appreciate the magnitude of this global crisis, but also provides valuable information to policymakers developing response and recovery plans."

While the most deaths have been documented in the United States—over 580,000 according to Johns Hopkins University's global tracker—the U.S. is followed by Brazil and India, which is currently enduring a devastating outbreak.

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