Supporters of waiver say easing patent restrictions will spur production of low-cost generic vaccines but opponents argue it could erode pharmaceutical companies’ profit incentive to develop new treatments.
A bold US bid to waive patents on much-needed coronavirus vaccines has been strongly opposed by Germany, threatening to derail the proposal that requires the consensus of World Trade Organization members to pass.
Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla meanwhile told AFP his company was "not at all" in favour of the measure, insisting intellectual property is not the main roadblock to more production and that building new plants would be counterproductive.
Rich nations have faced accusations of hoarding shots while poor countries struggle to get inoculation programs off the ground, with the virus surging across the developing world in contrast to the easing of restrictions in Europe and the United States.
The problem was highlighted as India, one of the worst-hit countries, registered record Covid-19 cases and deaths on Thursday.
Under intense pressure to ease protections for vaccine manufacturers, Washington's Trade Representative Katherine Tai said on Wednesday that the US "supports the waiver of those protections for Covid-19 vaccines."
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus hailed the announcement as "a monumental moment in the fight against Covid-19.
The move was also praised by the African Union, Paris, Rome and Vienna as well as World Trade Organization chief Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.
Germany opposes the Biden decision to waive vaccine IP: "The main issue is not patent production but production capacity," Health Minister Jens Spahn said. Europe likes to think it's more progressive/enlightened than hyper-capitalist America, but when push comes to shove...— Melissa Chan (@melissakchan) May 7, 2021
'Source of innovation'
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who previously voiced reluctance on the issue, said Brussels was ready to discuss the proposal.
Momentum built as Russian President Vladimir Putin said he too supported the idea of a patent waiver, as Russia registered a single-dose virus shot called Sputnik Light.
But Berlin's decision to come out strongly against the proposal has now left its fate unclear.
"The protection of intellectual property is a source of innovation and must remain so in the future," a spokeswoman for Angela Merkel's government said.
Bourla, whose company developed the first vaccine authorised in the West with Germany's BioNTech, told that it wasn't possible for other facilities to develop vaccines based on mRNA technology.
He cautioned firmly against disrupting current operations "with politically motivated announcements."
The US-Germany rift, a boon to big pharmaceutical companies, comes as more than 3.2 million people have died from the virus worldwide since the crisis began in late 2019.
Pharma stocks hit
Shares in vaccine manufacturers dropped after the EU and Russia followed the United States in signalling they are open to the idea of patent waivers for coronavirus vaccines.
But the sell-off was less severe than the day before, which Gregori Volokhine of Meeschaert Financial Services credited to traders realising the complexity of reaching an agreement at the WTO and German intransigence.
Supporters of the waiver say that easing patent restrictions will spur production of low-cost generic vaccines, helping poor countries that are struggling to immunise their populations.
Opponents argue it could erode pharmaceutical companies' profit incentive to develop new treatments.
India has been leading the fight to allow more drugmakers to manufacture the vaccines, as it faces a surge that has seen patients die in streets outside hospitals due to bed and medical oxygen shortages.
The country on Thursday reported almost 4,000 Covid-19 deaths and more than 412,000 infections – both new records.
Here’s why Pharma’s really really whining about the COVID vaccine patents: the government might finally have the spine to lower drug prices here at home. And it should. https://t.co/Wbk2Hm0EYT— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) May 6, 2021