Pope Francis has given his backing to the campaign calling for the suspension of coronavirus vaccine patents to boost supplies to poorer countries.
In a video message to the Vax Live event, Francis backed “universal access to the vaccine and the temporary suspension of intellectual property rights”. And he added his condemnation of the “virus of individualism” that “makes us indifferent to the suffering of others”.
“A variant of this virus is closed nationalism, which prevents, for example, an internationalism of vaccines,” he told Vax Live, an online charity concert, which was aired this weekend in aid of the international Covid vaccination effort.
The move is the latest development in an increasingly divisive battle over the proposal to relax patents taken out by pharmaceutical companies to cover the Covid vaccines they have developed. It is argued such a move would allow local drugs companies to make “copycat” vaccines without fear of being sued for infringing intellectual property rights, and therefore boost vaccine supplies in nations struggling to protect citizens from soaring Covid cases.
The patent waiving proposal was given powerful support last week by the Biden administration in the US, which announced that it supported calls by India and South Africa – and many congressional Democrats – to drop intellectual property protections for coronavirus vaccines.
“This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures,” said Katherine Tai, North America’s trade representative. “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.”
However the idea is fiercely opposed by major drug makers who argue it would set a precedent that could threaten future innovations. Nor would the move speed up vaccine production, said Pfizer’s chief executive, Albert Bourla. Lack of vaccine manufacturing facilities was not the problem. “The restriction is the scarcity of highly specialised raw materials needed to produce our vaccine,” he argued.
Bourla said Pfizer’s vaccine required 280 different materials and components that were sourced from 19 countries. Without patent protections, fledgling companies would start competing for the same ingredients. The result would be disruptions to the flow of these precious raw materials. “Right now, virtually every single gram of raw material produced is shipped immediately into our manufacturing facilities and is converted immediately and reliably to vaccines that are shipped immediately around the world,” he added.
Other scientists have warned of the dangers of inexperienced operators attempting to start up the large-scale manufacture of vaccines. Mistakes could lead to inoculated people suffering side effects that might result in the subsequent rejection of vaccines by the rest of the population.
To date, the UK and the EU have opposed the waiver with Charles Michel, president of the European Council, saying on Saturday that the bloc was ready to discuss a US offer to suspend patent protection on vaccines once the details are clear. “We are ready to engage on this topic, as soon as a concrete proposal would be put on the table,” Michel said at an EU summit in Portugal.
He added that the EU – which has sent more than 200 million doses abroad, as many as it kept for itself – had doubts about the idea being a “magic bullet” in the short term, and encouraged “all the partners to facilitate the export of doses”.
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, declared that “patents are not the priority”, while Italy’s prime minister, Mario Draghi, argued “liberalising the patents, even temporarily, does not guarantee the production of the vaccine”.
Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, added her opposition and put the onus on the US to play a larger role in supplying the world. “I do not think that a patent waiver is the solution to make more vaccines available to more people,” she said. “Rather, I think that we need the creativity and the power of innovation of companies – and, to me, that includes patent protection.”
According to the EU, it would take time to ensure the transfer of the technology needed to build vaccine plants and to train a workforce. And even if all those elements were in place, it would still take up to a year for a factory to start producing copycat vaccines.