© Tariq Keblaoui
24 Mar 21 24 Mar 21

EU has unique opportunity to help turn global tide on COVID-19 vaccine scarcity

Geneva, 23 March 2021 – Ahead of a meeting of European Union (EU) leaders starting Thursday, Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) urged the EU to adopt a global approach to address vaccine scarcity by taking concrete steps to ensure the sharing of COVID-19 vaccine technology and know-how with all potential manufacturers, including in low- and middle-income countries, to increase global vaccine supply, and by not blocking the intellectual property (IP) waiver proposal at the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Backtracking on plans to share doses

Countries across the world have struggled to ensure access to and swift delivery of COVID-19 vaccines, with the vast majority of countries yet to vaccinate all their healthcare workers and high-risk groups. The EU has also faced cuts and delays in vaccine deliveries leading the block to introduce export controls on vaccines.

Close up of COVID-19 vaccine.

Last week, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stated that “all options are on the table” when it comes to ensuring access to COVID-19 vaccines, including seizing control of their production in the EU and waiving IP rights. European Council President Charles Michel already hinted at such measures in January.

The EU has backtracked on plans to share doses with low- and middle-income countries until it has "a better production situation in the EU.” MSF has, since the beginning of the pandemic, insisted on a global response based on global solidarity, in line with commitments by EU leaders at the start of this pandemic.

The risk that new variants of the coronavirus may undermine the effectiveness of existing vaccines adds urgency to the need to diversify production and rapidly increase global vaccine supply and vaccination coverage.

EU should require corporations to openly share know-how

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“The EU’s strategy for European and global access to COVID-19 vaccines has so far focused on increasing European production of vaccines, while ignoring the significant potential to increase manufacturing capacity outside the EU,” said Dimitri Eynikel, EU Policy Advisor for MSF’s Access Campaign.

“The more vaccines that are globally available, the faster this pandemic may end, which is also in the EU’s interest. Today, where we have vaccine supply that doesn’t meet global demands, we need to ensure that frontline healthcare workers and high-risk groups across the globe are urgently prioritised for vaccination.”

The world is stuck in a zero-sum approach to vaccine access, but it doesn’t have to be this way.

Dimitri Eynikel, EU Policy Advisor for MSF’s Access Campaign

The EU should require corporations to openly share the technology and know-how of all vaccine technologies, including mRNA vaccines.

Significantly simpler to produce than traditional vaccines, mRNA vaccines can also be manufactured at relatively low cost and are easier to adapt to new viral variants. Thermostable versions are also currently being developed.

If technology and know-how are shared globally, even manufacturers without prior expertise in vaccine production could be able to produce them in six months, as was done by BioNTech and a manufacturing site acquired from Novartis in Marburg, Germany.

Stop blocking the IP waiver proposal at the WTO

In addition, the EU should stop blocking the IP waiver proposal at the WTO.

“It’s time for EU leaders to recognise that when it comes to emerging from this pandemic, the only solution is a global solution. EU leaders have now twice considered waiving intellectual property rights to help address the supply challenges in the EU but continue to deny the option for other countries by blocking the monopoly waiver proposal at the WTO,” said Yuanqiong Hu, Senior Legal and Policy Advisor, MSF Access Campaign.

“The EU must take action now and be part of the solution to boost the global supply of COVID-19 vaccines by not blocking the monopoly waiver at the WTO, removing all intellectual property barriers, and urgently mandating companies to share COVID-19 vaccine technology and know-how with manufacturers in low- and middle-income countries.”

Vaccine challenges.

The waiver offers an important legal option to open up opportunities for governments and companies to collaborate and share technology, production and supply capacity without solely relying on companies’ voluntary actions, which could ultimately help boost global supplies.

Today’s global supply constraints have been created by a system that has allowed pharmaceutical corporations to have control over the world’s production, supply and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.

Additional steps are needed to ensure there is sufficient and sustainable supply to meet the global demands by leveraging the full capacity to produce and supply, especially in low- and middle- income countries.

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