The European Union is willing to discuss a proposal to waive intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Thursday, as drugmakers fought their ground as their share prices tumbled.
U.S. President Joe Biden on Wednesday voiced support for a waiver in a sharp reversal of the U.S. position, and his top trade negotiator, Katherine Tai, swiftly backed negotiations at the World Trade Organization.
The World Health Organization said in April that of 700 million vaccines administered around the world, only 0.2% had been in low-income countries. A recent surge of infections in India, the world’s second most populous country, has underlined the point.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus reached for capital letters in a tweet calling Biden’s move a “MONUMENTAL MOMENT IN THE FIGHT AGAINST #COVID19,” and said it reflected “the wisdom and moral leadership of the United States.”
Von der Leyen, speaking to the European University Institute in Florence, said the European Union was ready to discuss any proposals that address the crisis “in an effective and pragmatic manner.”
“That’s why we are ready to discuss how the U.S. proposal for a waiver on intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines could help achieve that objective.”
Brian Skorney, an analyst with the wealth manager Robert W. Baird, said he believed the waiver discussion amounted to grandstanding by the Biden administration, and doubted it would have “any sort of broader long-term impact across the industry.”
Drugmakers said Biden’s move could disrupt a fragile supply chain, and urged rich countries instead to share vaccines more generously with the developing world.
The International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations said a waiver would invite new manufacturers that lacked essential know-how and oversight.
While Wall Street’s main indexes opened flat on Thursday, vaccine makers’ shares fell. Moderna was down 9.1% at 1351 GMT. Pfizer fell 3.6% and Novavax fell 6.2%. In London, AstraZeneca, which has sold its vaccine at cost price, was down less than 0.1%.
More than 155 million people have been reported to be infected by the coronavirus and almost 3.4 million have died, according to a Reuters tally.
The United States has the highest number of confirmed cases at 32.6 million, followed by India with more than 21 million.
Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio said Italy supported suspending patents, and that Europe should be courageous.
French President Emmanuel Macron said he was “very much in favor” of opening up intellectual property. However, a French government official said the lack of vaccines was the result of a lack of production capacity and upstream components, not of patents.
“I would remind you that it is the United States that has not exported a single dose to other countries, and is now talking about lifting the patents,” the official said.
German Health Minister Jens Spahn said he shared Biden’s goal of providing the whole world with vaccines.
South Africa and India made the initial waiver proposal at the WTO in October, gathering support from many developing countries, which say it is a vital step in making vaccines more widely available.
Until now, the European Union has been aligned with a group of countries, many such as Britain and Switzerland home to large pharmaceutical companies, that have opposed the waiver.
They argue it would undermine incentives for manufacturers -who have produced coronavirus vaccines in record time – to do so in a future pandemic. They also say waiving patents would not instantly resolve a shortage of manufacturing capacity.
British trade minister Liz Truss did not mention the waiver, but said Britain was working at the WTO to resolve the issue.
Vaccine making is complicated, as shown by production problems experienced by several manufacturer, and would also require a transfer of technology, know-how and personnel.
Von der Leyen said that, in the short run, the EU was urging all vaccine-producing countries to allow exports and to avoid measures that disrupt supply chains.
A Commission spokeswoman said this comment was not aimed at any country in particular.
South Africa and India have said they will revise their waiver proposal ahead of the next WTO meetings on the topic later in May and on June 8-9.
(Reporting by Sabine Siebold in Brussels, additional reporting by Robin Emmott, Francesco Guarascio and John Chalmers in Brussels, Emilio Parodi in Milan, Gwenaelle Barzic in Paris, Emma Farge in Geneva; Writing by Nick Macfie)