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Politics, Policy & Law

Shunning Biden’s IP waiver, G20 supports voluntary licensing of COVID-19 vaccines

May 21, 2021 | 10:48 PM GMT

The G20 has endorsed voluntary measures to transfer IP to enhance access to COVID-19 countermeasures at a global health summit. In a snub to the Biden administration, which has endorsed a WTO IP waiver for COVID-19 vaccines, a consensus declaration from the G20 Global Health Summit did not mention the waiver or any other proposals to abrogate the IP rights of biopharmaceutical companies.

The Rome Declaration committed the G20 to “promoting the use of tools such as voluntary licensing agreements of intellectual property, voluntary technology and know-how transfers, and patent pooling on mutually-agreed terms.”

The declaration also put the G20 on record vowing to “support low- and middle-income countries to build expertise, and develop local and regional manufacturing capacities for tools, including by building on COVAX efforts, with a view to developing improved global, regional and local manufacturing, handling and distribution capacities.”

While European countries are battling the IP waiver, China has expressed support for it. The U.S. has said it supports a waiver for COVID-19 vaccines, while South Africa and India are proposing a broader waiver for COVID-19 vaccines, therapies and diagnostics. 

The WTO operates by consensus, so European opposition could defeat the COVID-19 IP waiver, setting the stage for a “third way” based on voluntary licensing and technology transfer. 

EU supports voluntary, compulsory licensing

The EU will support WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s attempt to find a third way that meets the needs of developing countries for rapid access to COVID-19 vaccines but does not set a precedent for waiving IP protections.

In a speech Friday to the G20 Global Health Summit, EC President Ursula von der Leyen Friday said that “voluntary licensing is the best way to ensure the necessary transfer of technology and know-how together with IP rights.”

She added that under international treaties, compulsory licensing is “a perfectly legitimate tool for governments to use it in a crisis,” and noted that developing countries “are complaining about how difficult” it is to use international trade agreements to invoke compulsory licensing.  

Von der Leyen specifically did not endorse the U.S. support for a WTO IP waiver for COVID-19 patents.

Instead, she said the EU will “come forward with a proposal in WTO in early June to offer a third way in support of the Director-General of the WTO Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.”

In remarks to the G20 Health Summit, Okonjo-Iweala set out a timeline for negotiating the IP issue, calling on trade ministers to start negotiating an agreed text with the aim of ratifying it in December. “I am hopeful that by July we can make progress on a text and by our Twelfth Ministerial Conference in December, WTO members can agree on a pragmatic framework that offers developing countries near automaticity in access to health technologies, whilst also preserving incentives for research and innovation.”

Okonjo-Iweala outlined two other roles for the WTO to improve global equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines, easing supply chain bottlenecks by improving “supply chain monitoring and transparency” and enhancing manufacturing capacity in developing countries.

In the short term, the WTO will help by “keeping supply lines open and matching underused capacity with unmet needs,” she said.

Okonjo-Iweala noted that “having less than 0.2% of capacity in Africa is not a recipe for supply resilience.” The WTO will collaborate with the COVAX Supply Chain & Manufacturing Task Force to create vaccine manufacturing in developing countries, she said.

China backs IP waiver

In remarks to the summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping called for countries that are home to vaccine manufacturers to step up shipments of COVID-19 vaccines to developing countries.

He also endorsed a COVID-19 vaccine IP waiver, a policy that critics say would benefit Chinese manufacturers at the expense of U.S. and European companies that pioneered mRNA vaccines.

“Major vaccine-developing and producing countries need to take up their responsibility to provide more vaccines to developing countries in urgent need, and they also need to support their businesses in joint research and authorized production with other countries having the relevant capacity,” Xi said.

He added: “China supports its vaccine companies in transferring technologies to other developing countries and carrying out joint production with them.”

On the IP waiver, Xi said “having announced support for waiving intellectual property rights on COVID-19 vaccines, China also supports the World Trade Organization and other international institutions in making an early decision on this matter.”

Xi proposed the establishment of an “international forum on vaccine cooperation for vaccine-developing and producing countries, companies and other stakeholders to explore ways of promoting fair and equitable distribution of vaccines around the world.”

CEPI’s call to action

Looking ahead, CEPI CEO Richard Hatchett outlined three steps the world must take to prevent future pandemics. First, he called on G20 member countries to make “collective, coordinated investments to compress medical countermeasure development timelines, to a hundred days or less.” He noted that the U.K. is raising this goal through the G7.

“We must also substantially broaden the number of viral threats covered by vaccines developed on rapid response platforms,” Hatchett said, adding that “We must achieve a more equitably distributed and networked global vaccine manufacturing capacity.”

The current situation could have been much improved, he said, had the world extended early and at-risk public financing to support expanding manufacturing capacity and executing advanced purchase agreements on behalf of COVAX, and countries that had invested in vaccine development included in their grant and contract agreements requirements for global access.

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