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The “Europe's Role in Vaccine Inequality” Edition

The “Europe's Role in Vaccine Inequality” Edition
By Weekly Focus by n-ost • Issue #8 • View online
Hi and welcome to the 8th issue of the Weekly Focus!
Did you know that 34 authors from 20 countries have contributed to our European newsletter so far? Say ¡Hola! to this week’s newcomer, Spain!

Do you remember when Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, promised that the COVID-19  vaccine would be “our universal, common good”? That was in April 2020. As I write this, 0,1 % of people in low-income countries are fully vaccinated. The number changes if you live in a rich nation: 23,8 %. Global vaccine inequality is quite stunning. So what are we, the Europeans, doing to reduce the gap? 
Last October, India and South Africa asked the World Trade Organization (WTO) to waive patents. Given the emergency of the worldwide pandemic, they proposed to suspend some intellectual property rights and make the production of vaccines, medicines and diagnostics available to everyone. Since then, more than 100 countries have supported this so-called “TRIPS waiver.” The EU hasn’t.
Civil society is pushing: more than 240 NGOs, over 170 Nobel laureates and former heads of state, and even the Pope have asked for the TRIPS waiver. On May 5, the White House announced its support to waive vaccine patents. This was a seismic shift: now we have Washington and Beijing on the same side at the WTO. The world is calling for a global solution. 
Nonetheless, Brussels still doesn’t support the waiver and it is aligned to Big Pharma in defending intellectual property. Europe has become the real obstacle in the road towards the TRIPS waiver. Right now, while you are reading this newsletter, the TRIPS Council at the WTO is discussing the issue. This evening, the European Parliament will also vote on it. So what will Europe’s role in reducing vaccine inequalities be?
Francesca De Benedetti, this week’s Editorial Coordinator
This week's author team: Alicia Alamillos Dean (Madrid), Nantke Garrelts (Berlin), Francesca De Benedetti (Rome), Lucy Martirosyan (Paris), Ervin Gűth (Pécs).
This week's author team: Alicia Alamillos Dean (Madrid), Nantke Garrelts (Berlin), Francesca De Benedetti (Rome), Lucy Martirosyan (Paris), Ervin Gűth (Pécs).
🇪🇸 Time to pick your side
“The Spanish Government has opposed – along with the rest of rich countries – to the COVID-19 vaccine waiver in order to ensure that the poor countries get the vaccine later and more expensively than the rich ones. Another success of the most progressive government of democracy.”
“The Spanish Government has opposed – along with the rest of rich countries – to the COVID-19 vaccine waiver in order to ensure that the poor countries get the vaccine later and more expensively than the rich ones. Another success of the most progressive government of democracy.”
This sarcastic viral tweet by a local journalist in March was a reproduction of a widely shared map that showed the global disparities regarding the TRIPS waiver. On the map, Europe stood out as the great block that said ‘no,’ despite the initial insistence by the European Commission against ‘vaccine nationalism’. But as soon as US president Joe Biden proposed a vaccine patent waiver, the map began to change. Starting with Spain.
In March, Spain was, in fact, still against the waiver with the ruling socialist party even voting against it in the European Parliament in late April. But since Biden’s surprise move last month, Spain suddenly has become the loudest voice within the EU to call  for a waiver and to propose a huge transfer of 'vaccine knowledge’ and production capabilities to the Global South.
Why? First, Spain doesn’t have that much to lose. Without a big pharmaceutical industry, its only role in the European vaccine production process is packaging. On the other hand, there is internal pressure: the governing coalition between the socialist party, PSOE, and the far-left party, Podemos, has crashed in many areas, including the TRIPS. Changing its position to a more ‘progressive’ one, while drawing itself as a driving force in the EU context, is only a win-win at home. 
However, so far, this self-proclaimed Spanish leadership hasn’t translated into concrete pressure on the negotiations in Brussels. Spain alone is not strong enough to go against Germany, the main country really pushing against the waiver. So far, Berlin, with its huge pharmaceutical industry, is adamant in keeping TRIPS, and, with France, is shaping the European position. 
Similar to the negotiations on the European debt, Spain would need to form an alternative front with countries like Italy, Portugal or Hungary to change the EU position from the ‘third way’ that the Germany-led EU is proposing. The EU —  and Spain — is stuck in its  ‘donor’ role instead of stepping up as a leader of global development.
Alicia Alamillos Dean is a Spanish journalist covering international affairs, Euro-Mediterranean relations and Africa for www.elconfidencial.com. She’s now in Madrid, and was previously based in Cairo and Nairobi – always in hot places covering hot topics.
Alicia Alamillos Dean is a Spanish journalist covering international affairs, Euro-Mediterranean relations and Africa for www.elconfidencial.com. She’s now in Madrid, and was previously based in Cairo and Nairobi – always in hot places covering hot topics.
🇩🇪 Not a lesson in fishing
A production worker at Germany’s BionTech monitoring manufacturing processes. Technology, staff and knowledge have become priced commodities during the pandemic. Photo: BioNTech SE 2021, all rights reserved.
A production worker at Germany’s BionTech monitoring manufacturing processes. Technology, staff and knowledge have become priced commodities during the pandemic. Photo: BioNTech SE 2021, all rights reserved.
“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” This long-held mantra by international development policy reflects the core controversy surrounding the discussion of the possible TRIPS waiver – a measure that most nations with strong pharmaceutical industries, such as Germany, still reject.
If you ask German pharma companies about the initiative, they argue that a waiver would be of little to no use for global vaccine justice in the short and medium term. Their reasoning: Countries of the Global South don’t have access to the necessary technology, staff and knowledge to produce the complex COVID-19 vaccines in a reasonable timeframe.
Even though the financial self-interest by the pharma industry is evident – they make a fair point. While BRICS states — emerging economies with existing pharmaceutical bases such as India and South Africa — might benefit from the lifting of patents, this probably doesn’t account for the overwhelming majority of low- and mid-income countries worldwide. 
For them, the solution is not a lesson in fishing. The structural consequences of colonialism are too deep to be uprooted by a mere skill transfer. Centuries of inequalities in university training, funding and access to materials as well as  production will not be erased by a WHO training taking place now on how to build vaccine manufacturing facilities. What they need is a state-of-the-art boat, proper fishing rods, high quality bait and a trained crew.
That’s why the voluntary  “technology transfers” envisioned by the EU as a “3rd way” compromise aren’t enough. It needs to be mandatory. Companies like Biontech or Moderna who have received state funds should be obliged to send staff and equipment, just as all the nameless companies who build manufacturing facilities, equipment and chemicals should, too. This global pandemic response needs to be government-subsidised, and shouldn’t be left as an optional nicety. We can not afford to watch billions of people starve in front of a sea full of fish.
Nantke Garrelts is a staff writer at www.background.tagesspiegel.de Gesundheit & E-Health, a daily newsletter on health politics. She is monitoring infections and global vaccination rates almost daily – and wonders what health journalism and daily life without COVID-19 will look like.
Nantke Garrelts is a staff writer at www.background.tagesspiegel.de Gesundheit & E-Health, a daily newsletter on health politics. She is monitoring infections and global vaccination rates almost daily – and wonders what health journalism and daily life without COVID-19 will look like.
🇪🇺 Number of the Week
More than 203,300 European citizens have signed the “Right to cure” initiative, asking the European Commission to ensure that patents and intellectual property do not hamper equal access to vaccines. But have they been heard? Although civil society mobilized for vaccine equality both at the European and global level, in a letter to the World Trade Organization (WTO) more than 240 NGOs criticised the fact that Big Pharma got more attention than citizens. 
At the European level, this gap has been proven. According to the Corporate Europe Observatory, the European Commission has met Big Pharma more than 160 times since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020. Pharmaceutical associations had 117 encounters and pharma companies had 44. What about meetings with NGOs and civil society? Médecins Sans Frontières asked for them in vain: Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides declined, Trade Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis didn’t answer at all. And this is not a one-off. The Observatory has called it “the Commission’s Pharma Echo Chamber.”
This imbalance is reflected in Brussels’ official position. “The rapid development of several safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines has shown the value of intellectual property (…). The role of intellectual property will continue to be essential,” the EU said in its latest communication to the Council for TRIPS on June 4.  
Big Pharma stoutly defends intellectual property. The European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (Efpia) has successfully lobbied for the EU’s rejection of the TRIPS waiver proposal at the WTO, as documents show. It increased its lobby spending by 20% in 2020 (5,5 million) compared to 2019 (4,6 million). 
EU lobby spending by Big Pharma is at least 36 million euros a year. There are also 290 lobbyists employed in Brussels pushing for the industry’s interests. Meanwhile, citizens have signatures. For the European Citizens Initiative to be considered by the Commission, “Right to Cure’‘ needs to get one million signatures from across the EU.
Francesca De Benedetti is an Italian journalist with European vocation. She worked at "La Repubblica" and "La7 tv," and now writes about European politics at www.editorialedomani.it. She is covering the TRIPS  waiver issue.
Francesca De Benedetti is an Italian journalist with European vocation. She worked at "La Repubblica" and "La7 tv," and now writes about European politics at www.editorialedomani.it. She is covering the TRIPS waiver issue.
🇫🇷 1 question to... Bénédicte Jeannerod
Bénédicte Jeannerod is the director of the Human Rights Watch in France, one of the most vocal civil societies calling for the lifting of COVID-19 vaccine patents. Photo: HRW.
Bénédicte Jeannerod is the director of the Human Rights Watch in France, one of the most vocal civil societies calling for the lifting of COVID-19 vaccine patents. Photo: HRW.
France has been stuck in the middle of the TRIPS waiver debate. While President Emmanuel Macron first came out in favour of the COVID-19 vaccine patent lifting, he backtracked a day later. Meanwhile, at the African Economies Summit last month, he called for the removal of all intellectual property constraints blocking vaccine production in Africa. But that’s yet to be seen. 
Bénédicte Jeannerod, how has President Macron’s position on the lifting of vaccine patents been changing, and how does it relate to his evolving partnerships with African countries?
President Macron has held this position of principle for almost a year now that anti-COVID vaccines should be “global public goods.” This is a phrase that he’s used many times before. And he’s absolutely right. Except, in practice, France doesn’t support the proposition made by South Africa and India at the TRIPS council.
What the president upholds is increasing the donation of COVID-19 doses through the COVAX initiative. However, our position at HRW is clear: sharing intellectual property for COVID-19 vaccines would help more than donations.
On Africa, Macron’s position is that if the patents were lifted, it would not help because the continent does not have the capacity to produce vaccines. But this argument by the President of the Republic is flawed and wrong.
First of all, lifting the patents would not only concern Africa. There are other manufacturers — such as in Canada, India and Bangladesh — that would help produce doses. In addition, there are already a number of African countries that the WHO has recognized as being able to produce vaccines, or would be able to do so fairly soon. It’s clear that these arguments are used to justify France blocking the provision rather than an argument based in reality and facts.
But Macron is not the only one. The European Commission uses the same arguments in its opposition to the TRIPS waiver.
While voluntary licences and compulsory licences already exist, they’ve shown strong limitations. Voluntary licences allow laboratories to issue licences of their free will. But it doesn’t work. Labs don’t do it. Compulsory licences on the other hand allow governments access to labs’ patents without their permission. But they’ve also shown drawbacks during other diseases and pandemics.
That’s why we’re asking for the TRIPS waiver to be done as soon as possible. It is the only thing that, in our opinion, would be able to deal with the pandemic and allow everyone, including those in extremely poor countries, to have equitable access to vaccines.
Lucy Martirosyan is an editorial assistant at Weekly Focus and currently finishing her journalism master at Sciences Po in Paris. Previously, she worked as a radio producer for the American international affairs program “The World”.
Lucy Martirosyan is an editorial assistant at Weekly Focus and currently finishing her journalism master at Sciences Po in Paris. Previously, she worked as a radio producer for the American international affairs program “The World”.
🇭🇺 All in on Eastern vaccines
Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjártó and his Chinese colleague Wang Yi at a press conference in Guiyang, China on May 31, 2021. Photo: fb.com/szijjarto.peter.official
Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjártó and his Chinese colleague Wang Yi at a press conference in Guiyang, China on May 31, 2021. Photo: fb.com/szijjarto.peter.official
While the rest of Europe is grappling with the question of vaccine patent waivers, Hungary is making its own deals in the East. Last week, the Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó took time out of his schedule for two interesting stops. First, in Guiyang, China, where he announced plans to produce the Chinese-developed Sinopharm jabs entirely in Hungary in order to make the country self-sufficient – and also sell the vaccine to export markets. 
Only three days later, in Moscow, Szijjártó agreed with the Russian Direct Investment Fund to license Sputnik V and any other upcoming Russian COVID-19 jabs. “There is openness on both sides to produce Russian vaccines in the [Hungarian] National Vaccine Facility … by the end of 2022,” said Szijjártó, adding that Sputnik V is acknowledged in the ‘Eastern parts of the world’, meaning  Hungary could profit from the deal.
Despite many doubts – mainly, neither Sinopharm nor Sputnik V have been approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) yet – the Hungarian government’s bet on ‘Eastern vaccines’ is not new: Bending the rules and procuring 2 million Sputnik V and 5 million Sinopharm jabs has made Hungary the EU’s vaccination champ in the short run and Orbán confident enough to opt-out from future EU-Pfizer deals. 
Now that the country is finally going all in on Sinopharm and Sputnik V, and the domestic vaccination campaign has reached a plateau, Hungary is getting rid of its Western-made vaccines, and lending them to neighbouring countries like Slovenia and the Czech Republic.
From the Hungarian government’s perspective this all makes complete sense: Brussels “messed up” the vaccine procurements; delivery didn’t go as planned. Also, doing business with China and Russia is less problematic: they do not ask as many questions about the rule of law as the EU does and the lack of transparency in clinical trials isn’t a deal breaker either. Concerns about the price, production costs, necessity or viability of such projects are not on Orbán’s public agenda
Ervin Gűth is a Hungarian freelance journalist and editor at the independent regional outlet www.szabadpecs.hu. As a Sputnik V recipient, he hopes for an EMA approval to be able to move freely again in all EU and non-EU countries.
Ervin Gűth is a Hungarian freelance journalist and editor at the independent regional outlet www.szabadpecs.hu. As a Sputnik V recipient, he hopes for an EMA approval to be able to move freely again in all EU and non-EU countries.
Author's pick: What we were reading and listening to
A patent waiver on COVID vaccines is right and fair
Radiography of the production of the COVID vaccines: 35 countries concentrate on the production of the main doses (in Spanish)
Is there a ban on Covid vaccine exports in the US?
The unexpected European dilemma: Support the US — or Big Pharma? - Investigate Europe
Mariana Mazzucato, Jayati Ghosh and Els Torreele on waiving covid patents | The Economist
‎Today, Explained: “Free the vaccine!” – Vox
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