Is the EU Guilty of Perpetuating ‘Vaccine Apartheid’?

Published on 10 June 2021 at 15:03

The rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine has been nothing if not controversial. The row between the UK and EU over AstraZeneca’s contract obligations was a sign of things to come, and the US’ refusal until May to waive intellectual property protections for vaccine manufacturers in order to increase cheaper production for poorer countries has not helped matters.


In addition, concerns in general over intellectual property protections for vaccine producers and large pharmaceutical companies have arguably hampered efforts to boost production of vaccines as well as to distribute them globally in a fair manner.


Following the diplomatic spat between the UK and EU over AstraZeneca’s failure to fulfil the ambitious vaccine orders it agreed to produce last year, media focus shifted towards the US as it was pursuing a successful vaccine rollout. Just as a light seemed to appear at the end of the tunnel in the US, new strains of Covid popped up globally, particularly in South Africa and India.


Following this steep increase in infections, both countries applied to the UN TRIPS Council for a global temporary waiver on the intellectual property protections of vaccine producers so that these countries would be able to produce generic vaccines at a lower cost. One of the main opponents to this waiver initially was the United States.


Given the strength of the pharmaceutical lobby in the United States, as well as its longstanding relationship with high-ranking politicians, many believed it was unlikely that President Joe Biden would agree to a temporary waiver of intellectual property rights even as India suffered a massive spike in Covid infection rates in April.


Ultimately, in early May, Biden changed his position in favour of boosting vaccine production efforts, much to the surprise and anger of large multinational corporations who sought to gain a larger profit from withholding information vital to producing the life-saving vaccine. More specifically, Biden called for the  TRIPS Council to accept the requests of South Africa and India to implement a waiver to the intellectual property rights of vaccine producers, which in turn would give countries across the world the means to access the ingredients and manufacturing process necessary to produce generic versions of the vaccine.


However, while the Biden administration eventually gave in to the demands of progressive activists to take a position in favour of allowing generic versions of the Covid-19 vaccines to be manufactured, such pressure has not been present in Europe, where lobbyists acting on behalf of giant pharmaceutical companies still hold sway over matters in EU circles.


Some European policymakers have expressed support for the waiver, including Dutch trade minister Sigrid Kaag who welcomed Biden’s move as a “good sign” and French president Emmanuel Macron, who said that he was “absolutely in favour”. However, others have expressed steadfast support for the EU’s previous position of placing greater importance on intellectual property protections, including Leo Varadkar, who made a comparison between an intellectual property waiver and sharing a recipe without providing the kitchen, cooking skills or ingredients.

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