The patents of the pharmaceutical industry

The United States, home to four of the world’s ten largest pharmaceutical companies by sales, is abandoning its previous opposition within the World Trade Organization (WTO) to a temporary suspension of patent rights for corona vaccines. Katherine Tai, trade representative of the Biden administration, said on Wednesday evening in Washington that the decision should enable the production and distribution of vaccines in line with urgent international needs.

Blockade crumbles

As a result, pressure is growing on the EU Commission and the other headquarters countries of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies to also abandon their resistance. These states, the EU, Brazil, Australia, Canada, Norway and so far also the USA, blocked in six rounds of negotiations at the WTO headquarters in Geneva since September last year a request for the suspension of patent protection rights, which was then submitted by India and South Africa and has since been supported by more than 120 states.

“The US government firmly believes in the protection of intellectual property, but in the service of ending the pandemic it supports the suspension of this protection for Covid-19 vaccines,” said Tai, explaining the US turnaround. It is a global health crisis, “and the exceptional circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic require exceptional measures.” The goal of US President Joe Biden’s administration is to “bring as many safe and effective vaccines to as many people as quickly as possible.” The Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, welcomed the US decision as historic.

Reasons for the turnaround

In addition to the progress achieved in combating the pandemic at home, the dramatic situation in India and also in Brazil is, according to diplomats, decisive for the turnaround of the United States. The Biden administration has realized that the Covax initiative and other instruments to combat the pandemic, to which the German government and the EU have so far referred in their opposition to a suspension of patent protection, are inadequate.

The Covax initiative, launched in May 2020 as part of the WHO programme, aims to provide the world’s poorest countries with vaccines for at-risk groups by the end of 2021. However, according to calculations by the international NGO coalition People’s Vaccine Alliance, without a significant global expansion of vaccine production, Covax will not be able to supply even ten percent of these population groups with vaccine by the end of 2021. Due to the worldwide production bottlenecks, not enough vaccine doses are produced and most of the production is vaccinated in wealthy countries. Since India was the main supplier of vaccine doses to Covax, but has now suspended all exports since March due to the dramatic situation at home, this forecast could even worsen.

Other Initiatives

In addition, other “concrete initiatives that would support Covax in achieving its goals would also be blocked by Germany,” criticized the Evangelical aid organization Brot für die Welt. WHO’s CTAP technology pool, for example, encourages companies to voluntarily share licenses and know-how, as well as to hand over vaccine doses to Covax. Brot für die Welt (Bread for the World) called on the German government to “follow the example of the USA and now make a strong commitment in the EU to suspend patent protection for Covid-19 vaccines”.

The dramatic situation in India also shaped an internal round of consultations between WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and ambassadors from industrialised and developing countries on Wednesday. The meeting was more constructive than the previous one, said a WTO spokesman. India and South Africa have announced that they will revise their previous application for suspension of the patents and submit a possible compromise text next week.

“Great sign”

The WTO Director General welcomed the turnaround of the US. Movement has entered the so far rigid fronts of the WTO. For example, the Australian government praised the US decision as a “great sign”, and France has recently stopped resisting a suspension of patent protection. A next round of formal negotiations by the Council of 164 WTO ambassadors was scheduled for 8-9 June.

Patent protection rights are part of the WTO Agreement on Trade-related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreed in 1994. However, their suspension in the event of international health emergencies requires a consensus decision by WTO members.