BRUSSELS — Under growing pressure, the European Union is considering whether to follow the Biden administration’s unexpected decision to support a waiver of patent rights for Covid-19 vaccines as many poor and middle income nations struggle to secure lifesaving doses.
The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, stopped short of outright supporting President Biden in a speech on Thursday morning, but said the European Union is “also ready to discuss any proposals that address the crisis in an effective and pragmatic manner.”
“That is 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,” she said, speaking at the Florence European University Institute. “In the short run, however, we call upon all vaccine producing countries to allow export and to avoid measures that disrupt the supply chains.”
Her comments mark a shift, as she has previously said she did not support patent waivers.
The United States had been a major holdout at the World Trade Organization over a proposal to suspend some of the world economic body’s intellectual property protections, which could allow drugmakers across the globe access to the closely guarded trade secrets of how the viable vaccines have been made. But President Biden had come under increasing pressure to throw his support behind the proposal, drafted by India and South Africa.
The European Union is one of the world’s largest producers, exporters and consumers of vaccines and has so far been adamantly against progressive activism at the W.T.O. level, to recognize the global pandemic as a massive emergency and remove protections on the vaccines, permitting them to ultimately be produced in larger volumes by manufacturers around the world.
The calls to change course on patent waivers have grown exponentially in the past few weeks as India’s catastrophic coronavirus wave has plunged the country into the worst outbreak the world has seen since the start of the pandemic.
The European Union is on the verge of announcing a giant new deal with Pfizer-BioNTech for 2022 and 2023, that will lock in 1.8 billion doses for boosters, variants and children’s vaccines, compounding the global inequity. The United States said it would also start vaccinating children over the age of 12.
By contrast, frontline health workers in poorer nations still don’t have access to a single shot of the vaccine.
May 5, 2021, 10:31 p.m. ET
“This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures,” she said in a statement. “The administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections, but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for Covid-19 vaccines.”
For any patent waivers to be successful, the proposal requires unanimity and the European Union support is necessary for it to pass.
Still, even if the European Union changes its position and the proposal passes, it could make little difference to vaccine availability in the short run.
Eighty-three percent of shots that have gone into arms worldwide have been administered in high- and upper-middle-income countries. Just 0.2 percent of doses have been administered in low-income countries. In North America, 48 out of 100 adults have received at least one dose of a vaccine; the figure its 31 per 100 adults in Europe. In Africa, it is 1.3, according to data compiled by The Times.
Ms. von der Leyen on Thursday once again stated the European Union’s belief that “no one is safe until everyone is safe” in the fight against the pandemic.
That notion, she said, was as true for the continent of Europe as it was for the world. She said she could not imagine what it would have meant if some countries in the European Union secured vaccines while others went without.
“Economically it would have made no sense whatsoever with such an integrated single market,” she said. “And politically it would have torn our union apart.”
But addressing global inequity will present a far greater challenge.
The bloc has allowed major vaccine exports and made large financial contributions to initiatives that seek to spread vaccines to poorer nations.
But, under criticism at home for not doing as much as the United States and Britain to get its own citizens inoculated faster, it has stopped short of throwing its weight behind the growing global movement for the release of Covid-19 vaccine patents. And it has held back from pushing pharmaceutical companies to share their technological know-how to build up global production capacity, a step that would see a scaling up of global vaccine availability.
Changing course now would be a huge turnaround for Ms. von der Leyen. In an interview with The New York Times where she previewed the Pfizer-BioNTech deal last month, she came out strongly against vaccine patent sharing.
“I am not at all a friend of releasing patents,” Ms. von der Leyen said, advancing a common argument among pharmaceutical executives that the innovation that spurred the speedy development of Covid-19 vaccines was in part down to private enterprise. “Therefore, you need this private-sector ingenuity behind it,” she added.
Marc Santora contributed reporting from London.