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Protest in support of vaccine patent waiver

An activist displays a placard reading, "Patents kill! Vaccines for all!" during a demonstration in front of the Economy Ministry in Berlin on March 10, 2021. (Photo: John MacDougall/AFP via Getty Images)

As European Parliament Endorses Vaccine Patent Waiver, EU Urged to Stop Putting Pharma Profits Over Human Life

"The E.U. has helped the Big Pharma billionaires long enough, now we need to help the billions. It is time to break the vaccine monopolies and put people before profit."

The European Parliament voted Wednesday to endorse a temporary patent waiver for coronavirus vaccines, bucking an intense lobbying campaign by the pharmaceutical industry and heightening pressure on E.U. member nations to end their opposition to the proposal at the World Trade Organization.

"This vote sends a strong signal that Europeans stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of the world in the fight against the pandemic."
—Evelien van Roemburg, Oxfam

By a vote of 355 in favor, 263 against, and 71 abstentions, members of the European Parliament (MEPs) approved a resolution expressing support for "proactive, constructive, and text-based negotiations for a temporary waiver of the WTO TRIPS Agreement, aiming to enhance global access to affordable Covid-19-related medical products and to address global production constraints and supply shortages."

While adoption of the resolution does not bind E.U. member nations to the patent waiver, global public health campaigners said the vote represents an important victory in the months-long fight to end the pharmaceutical industry's stranglehold on vaccine production—monopoly control that has led to stark inequities in global distribution of the lifesaving shots.

"This vote sends a strong signal that Europeans stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of the world in the fight against the pandemic," said Evelien van Roemburg, head of Oxfam International's EU office. "European governments and the European Commission must stop spouting red-herring arguments and instead follow suit by backing the proposal on the table at the World Trade Organization. Other qualified producers must be given the know-how and technology to make more vaccines. This will slash costs so everyone can access them."

"We have seen what happens when Big Pharma only cares about their profits—more deaths and more suffering," van Roemburg added. "They should not be allowed to decide who gets to live or die. Especially now with the explosion of new variants. The E.U. has helped the Big Pharma billionaires long enough, now we need to help the billions. It is time to break the vaccine monopolies and put people before profit."

Anna Cavazzini, a Green MEP, celebrated Wednesday's vote as "a huge step for ensuring that vaccines are globally accessible."

The vote came hours after WTO member nations finally agreed to begin text-based negotiations over the India- and South Africa-led waiver proposal, which would lift intellectual property barriers that are preventing factories around the world from producing generic vaccines to bolster the artificially limited global supply.

Despite the popularity of the patent waiver—which now has the support of more than 100 nations, including the United States, France, and Spain—the European Commission and E.U. member countries such as Germany and Switzerland remain against the proposal. Because the WTO operates by consensus, a handful of wealthy nations have the power to tank the waiver.

Last week, the E.U. leadership put forth an alternative to the patent waiver that would rely primarily on voluntary agreements between countries and pharmaceutical companies to boost global vaccine supply—a strategy that has thus far left the people of developing nations largely without access to shots as drugmakers have opted to sell much of their supply to rich countries.

"In short, the E.U.'s top priority remains pharma profits, not human life—but the start of negotiations on the waiver proposal is still significant," Andrew Stroehlein, European media director at Human Rights Watch, said Thursday. "Negotiations will take time. Too much time, of course, and many more will suffer and die while diplomats dither over the text. There are a thousand battles to come."

"But if we are today one step closer to a people's vaccine," Stroehlein added, "then we may at least be on the right path, finally."

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