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A little less conversation, a little more action, please: The EU and the TRIPS Waiver

Two weeks after the United States declared support for a temporary waiver on intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines, the EU is still struggling to agree on a joint position. Germany where BioNTech – one of the leading mRNA vaccine developers – is headquartered is leading opposition against the so-called TRIPS Waiver. The fact that many EU member states are reluctant to consider this instrument may prolong the COVID-19 pandemic. 

An unexpected ally

The TRIPS Waiver initially put forward by India and South Africa would allow WTO members to temporarily suspend intellectual property protections to make diagnostics, therapies, and vaccines more widely available and more affordable. TRIPS stands for the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, which is a core treaty of the World Trade Organization. Wikimedia Deutschland supports the TRIPS Waiver.

On May 6th, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai issued a statement, saying the Biden administration would participate in text-based negotiations at the World Trade Organization (WTO) to reach agreement on the proposed waiver for intellectual property protections: “The Administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections, but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for COVID-19 vaccines.”

This was an unexpected step, since the U.S. has a long history of supporting intellectual property-maximalist positions in international forums and had opposed the TRIPS Waiver until that point.

The EU remains skeptical

Judging from European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s initial reaction to Tai’s statement, the EU was as surprised by the U.S. government’s sudden change in position as most observers. Von der Leyen stated that the TRIPS Waiver proposal was “very important” and that the EU should be open to discussion. However, von der Leyen noted that the WTO “should also, for example, have a close look at the role of licensing.” This diplomatic language indicates that the EU in fact does not support the Waiver and prefers voluntary measures.

“This diplomatic language indicates that the EU in fact does not support the Waiver and prefers voluntary measures.

In April, over 400 Members of the European Parliament and members of national parliaments of the member states of the European Union published a joint appeal in support of the TRIPS Waiver. “New strains of COVID-19 prove that we will not defeat the virus until we defeat it everywhere,” the letter stated. Indeed, according to estimates by The Economist Intelligence Unit, “more than 85 developing countries will not achieve widespread vaccination coverage before 2023, at best.” This is too long in the face of a pandemic that is currently ravaging Brazil, India, and many other countries in the Global South. 

Reactions by European heads of governments indicate that there is no unified position. France for instance swiftly shifted from agreeing with the U.S. position to – again – rejecting the TRIPS Waiver (see here, for an overview of member states’ reactions). On May 19th, European Commission Executive Vice President and Trade Commissioner Vladis Dombrovskis spoke in front of the European Parliament, again expressing preference for voluntary licenses and, if necessary, compulsory licenses, which exist in the WTO framework. 

Current efforts aren’t enough

The EU official line is to argue that a TRIPS Waiver will not immediately help ramping up production, which is true. In contrast to the U.S., so the argument goes, the EU is already exporting as many vaccine doses as it is distributing within its borders. However, most low-income countries have received practically no doses at all so far. Even the UN-led COVAX initiative has fallen short of its goal to deliver 100 million doses by the end of March by a margin of over 60 million.

It is also true that text-based negotiations will take months until completion. They will take even longer if the EU keeps resisting. Unfortunately, it is also true that the pandemic will not be over in a year, especially if we don’t do everything in our power to end it. Adopting the TRIPS Waiver could help driving down the prices of vaccine doses and promote availability in the medium run.