Would the member countries of the European Union hold a double discourse on the distribution of vaccines in the world? In France, the debate has further risen by a few degrees. The LFI deputy François Ruffin, for example, does not miss an opportunity to denounce, in front of the camera or in the Assembly, the French hypocrisy on the lifting of patents. “You refused to allow the vaccine to be a global public good!” He said again on March 16 in the hemicycle. It was a commitment from Emmanuel Macron. And yet, last week at the WTO, France said no to the lifting of patents. The truth is, even during Covid, commerce still trumps health. "
It was Olivier Véran, that day, who took it upon himself to answer him vehemently.
"We are here in the hemicycle, and not on one of your YouTube videos," tackled the Minister of Health.
Mr MP, we do more than lift the ownership of a laboratory in the field of patents, we make sure that all companies capable of producing vaccines in this country and on European territory produce vaccines, including on behalf of laboratories that are not their own laboratories.
When you have Sanofi which produces vaccines for competing laboratories, do you think it fell from the sky?
Do you think Sanofi watched a YouTube video of Mr. Ruffin and
thought Ahlala, are we going to produce foreign vaccines
Far from these parliamentary spat, this debate has been officially on the table at the international level for six months. On October 2, a proposal was debated before the more than 160 members of the World Trade Organization (WTO). It was initially worn by two countries, India and South Africa. “At the international level, there is an urgent call for global solidarity, and for the unhindered global sharing of technologies and know-how, so that rapid responses can be put in place in real time for the management of the Covid- 19 ”, we can read in this text. To allow the fastest possible dissemination of vaccines, the two countries then call for the lifting of legal barriers slowing their massive and low-cost distribution around the world.
Failure, WTO members cannot agree. The subject was discussed again on March 11, without further success. This time, however, the proposal was supported by a hundred countries. "The countries of the North, at this stage, refuse to sign," comments Lucas Chancel, economist and co-director of the Laboratory on Global Inequalities at the Paris School of Economics. What they say, in short, is: "we are not signing at the WTO, but we will support you within the current legal framework" ". The European position, arbitrated in the Council, is not the subject of reports and is decided with the greatest discretion. A point undoubtedly damaging in times of pandemic. Asked to detail its position, the European Commission did not respond to the Parisian's requests.
As François Ruffin asserts, President Emmanuel Macron described the vaccine in June 2020 as a “global public good”.
But the head of state does not make the lifting of patents an imponderable.
It seems to have become a last resort or a means of pressure.
If the States and the Big Pharma "do not play the game of cooperation, the political question of intellectual property will inevitably rise in all our countries", as well as "the debate of the surplus profits made on the scarcity of the vaccine", declared he in an interview with the Financial Times on February 18.
A false good idea "
Two schools are actually competing on the issue of patents.
For those who defend them, the lifting would risk slowing down innovation, while laboratories are committing billions to the provision of vaccines, developed in just a few months in the case of Covid-19.
Asked about this, the French government takes refuge behind the Covax solidarity mechanism, a donation system that aims to support developing countries in their fight against the virus.
Investigation into Covax and the “somewhat naive” dream of the WHO
"The subject today is not patents, but increasing production capacities," commented in the entourage of Agnès Pannier-Runacher, Minister Delegate in charge of Industry. The difficulty is not to give the recipe for the vaccine but to be able to produce it. We often forget to remember that vaccines were industrialized in three or four months. We cannot go faster than necessary if we want to guarantee the quality of the vaccines leaving the factory. We have not met a single industrialist, apart from laboratories producing vaccines, who told us "things are not going well, we have to lift the patents to allow us to produce". "
An argument defeated by Lucas Chancel. “Poor and emerging countries are asking for patents to be lifted in order to appropriate production methods. Today, the only way to achieve this is to rely on bilateral agreements that generate legal uncertainty, he says. Regarding their production capacity, which is considered to be less or insufficient, it should nevertheless be remembered that India is the leading producer of vaccines in the world. South Africa also has real potential. Removing barriers will not have immediate consequences, but these countries could start producing in a matter of months. We have already lost a lot of time since October. Still, India would not really be seen as a model by the French government."Which country is blocking many doses at its border that should serve Covax?" India, deplores a ministerial source. We cannot say that they are really leading the way. "
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Regarding the billions committed by the labs, which necessarily seek to make their investments profitable, Lucas Chancel considers the debate unfounded.
“97% of the investments made for the AstraZeneca vaccine are of public origin.
The key innovation in RNA vaccines, research on the Spike protein, is based on a discovery from a US public laboratory, which has not been protected.
The laboratories were largely funded by the public authorities.
The keys in Biden's hands
In this very diplomatic matter, it seems that the Biden administration is in a position to change the situation. While the United States has been opposed, like the European Union, since October to the lifting of patents, the president-elect is reportedly considering committing to a waiver of several months. "It is not impossible that he ends up committing in this direction, the signal would be strong, he could say that it does not cost much", continues Lucas Chancel.
Especially since the American president is facing strong pressure from Congress to go in this direction. Last week, a forum signed by a hundred leaders and Nobel laureates also called on him to lift the patents. Among the signatories, former French President François Hollande. “There is a possibility with the presidency of Joe Biden, which he himself opened, notes the former head of state to the Parisian. The idea of this forum is to create a form of consensus which can lead to the lifting of patents. We see with the variants how difficult it is to contain them in the countries that know them. The challenge for the planet is to vaccinate as many people as possible, especially in Africa where we have one of the lowest vaccination rates in the world. "
For François Hollande, the donation mechanisms are not sufficient at this stage. “What these countries are asking for is to be able to produce vaccines. Our intention is to promote the lifting of intellectual property rules in the United States. France alone could not have taken this initiative. But she must participate in this momentum. When you want to fight a pandemic, it is better to vaccinate as many people as possible in the world. We have seen it with AIDS, we must treat, treat everywhere. "
According to the former French president, the economic issues are no longer as significant as at the start of the health crisis. “I understand the laboratories, which hope for a return on the billions of euros invested. But since they will soon obtain this return, if it has not already been done, and that there will be a possibility for them to sell a very large proportion of their products through regular vaccinations, I think that we can go towards this lifting of patents. Lucas Chancel supports this strategy. "What is certain is that the European Union will have a hard time staying on its line if the United States commits to a lifting", he predicts. “America is back! Joe Biden likes to recall regularly. Regarding the lifting of patents, it is the United States that seems to be in a position to decide for the world.WTO member countries will meet again in June.