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Europe divided on merits of patent waivers for COVID-19 vaccines

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By Pierre Briançon

The U.S. support for an international proposal to waive patents for COVID-19 vaccines was met with surprise and skepticism on Friday by European governments, who remain divided about the eventual benefits of the idea.

  • After Germany and Switzerland voiced on Thursday their opposition to the measure, invoking the need to protect intellectual-property rights, long-reluctant French President Emmanuel Macron on the contrary rallied to the U.S. position and said he was “absolutely in favor” of patent waivers in the current context.

  • The European Union, where most of the COVID-19 vaccines currently in use in the world are being manufactured, had long resisted the proposal for a temporary waiver pushed within the World Health Organization, and European officials were caught by surprise by the U.S. administration’s about-face announced on Thursday.

  • Opponents of the measure point out that, for now, patents aren’t an obstacle to supply . The lack of manufacturing capacity worldwide is the main cause of the slow distribution of COVID-19 vaccines in the developing world, which won’t be solved by transfers of property rights.

  • Stéphane Bancel, the chief executive of Moderna /zigman2/quotes/205619834/composite MRNA +2.34% , the U.S. developer of one of the most-used shots in the world, said on Thursday that he had not “lost a minute of sleep” over the U.S. decision, noting that his company already said back in October that it wouldn’t enforce patents during the pandemic.

Read: Biden’s move on vaccine patents represents blow for the second-biggest spender on Washington lobbying

The outlook: Industry lobbying and conflicting national interests will collide as the WHO tries to reach unanimity on the measure. But even if it is never adopted, the mere threat of patent waivers may be enough to force the pharmaceutical industry to up its game and increase its global manufacturing and distribution capacities. Which may be the main explanation why the U.S. and others are overcoming their previous objections and now support the idea.

Read: Global tally of COVID-19 cases tops 155 million as Biden supports waivers for vaccine patents

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