Several activists demonstrate to demand global access to vaccines, this Wednesday in Washington. SHAWN THEW / EFE
With the decision to support the temporary suspension of patents to ensure the global distribution of vaccines against COVID-19, the president of the United States, Joe Biden, has taken a step of enormous importance, with the potential to give a great boost to the fight this pandemic and set a precedent for future global health emergencies. This turnaround breaks the blockade of the most developed countries on patents and represents a powerful sign of Biden's willingness to put US leadership at the service of human progress. The catastrophic evolution of the pandemic in India has probably facilitated the turnaround.
The temporary exemption of the intellectual property rights of vaccines was raised by India and South Africa to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in October, is claimed by the director of the WHO and has obtained the adherence of a hundred governments. But it still suffers from the opposition of countries with great weight in the production of vaccines. The change in the position of the United States represents a turning point and has had as a first consequence that the European Union declares itself ready to debate the issue. The EU is the largest producer of vaccines and unlike the US, which has retained all its production and already has 56% of the adult population vaccinated, it has been much more supportive and has allowed the export of millions of doses. Biden's brave step now leaves her in tow in an initiative of enormous importance - and global attention.In the process, the Europeans enter divided, with the circumspect willingness to negotiate from Brussels, the firm rejection of Germany and, in a notable gesture, the explicit support of the Spanish government.
There is no room for naivety. The road to a real increase in production is arduous. Agreements in the WTO are adopted by consensus and reaching it in this case may take time, or be impossible. The reluctance of the pharmaceutical industry and of some of the countries that have contributed the most to research, such as Germany, to share technologies with countries that have had little respect for intellectual property are understandable. Disincentivizing investment in research is a strong argument. But the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic call for extraordinary solutions. In the process that is now opening in the WTO, the EU should support the search for smart liberalization commitments with a proactive attitude. The biggest stumbling block will undoubtedly be technology transfer,of enormous strategic importance in the case of messenger RNA. But agreements can be sought that prevent misuse of the most sensitive aspects, as well as designing compensation mechanisms.
It is true that there are other ways to increase production. The pharmaceutical companies holding the patents have reached agreements with other companies to increase capacity, a path that needs to be further developed. But at the moment they are far from being able to guarantee the necessary manufacturing. The gravity of the situation demands that the path of liberalization be explored. It is also a general interest. No one is really safe until everyone is vaccinated. If science has achieved the milestone of obtaining vaccines in less than a year, it must be possible to find formulas that allow the benefits of that achievement to be extended to all mankind.