End the deadlock to the COVID vaccine patents

By the EESC Workers' Group

As Europeans recover from the Christmas break, a wave of COVID cases sweeps the continent: the new omicron variant has increased infections exponentially worldwide. However, thanks to the build-up of immunity and previous vaccinations, as well as the natural evolution of the virus towards less lethal and aggressive variants, the extremely high numbers have come with a lower share of severe diseases, hospitalisations and deaths.

Nevertheless, our health systems are once again overloaded. And while vaccination rates are very high in rich countries in general, many parts of the world, which also have less prepared healthcare systems, do not enjoy such rates. The pandemic keeps claiming lives worldwide, hitting developing countries particularly hard, and the virus keeps mutating in those areas at an alarming rate. Sometimes, this develops into milder versions such as Omicron, but this is not always the case.

To finally overcome this pandemic, we need greater efforts on vaccines. These have been developed thanks to outstanding advances in science and medicine and billions in public investments, so vaccines must remain a public good and the rollout should be under the control of democratic institutions. We need patents on COVID-19 vaccines and wider health products and technologies to be waived temporarily under the TRIPS agreement at the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The TRIPS waiver was proposed by India and South Africa a year ago in order to ensure that, during this pandemic, intellectual property rights cannot become barriers to urgent, universal and affordable access to and development of related health products, including the vaccines needed to combat COVID-19. More than 100 countries back the waiver at the WTO. However, the European Union is among the WTO members which have yet to support the proposed waiver of COVID-19 related intellectual property rights under the TRIPS agreement, including for COVID-19 vaccines.

Failure to urgently agree on a waiver would mean that a few major pharmaceutical companies will be able to prevent other manufacturers from producing COVID-19 vaccines, impeding the EU’s efforts to scale up production at home, and the manufacturing of vaccines in developing countries around the world. It will also endanger the EU’s and the global economic recovery by prolonging this pandemic. As the new wave this Christmas break has shown, the endemic end of the pandemic might be in sight, but it is a long way ahead, and will take much longer and claim many more lives worldwide if a large part of the population still lacks access to the vaccines. (prp)