Patents under pressure

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Recent news updates have discussed the proposed forceful acquisition of patents from large pharmaceutical companies by European countries as compensation for companies not delivering on agreed contracts during the COVID-19 pandemic.

If these threats are to be believed, this would have serious implications on the EU. It is unlikely that pharmaceutical companies would take this decision well and could lead to a mass exodus many of these organisations from the EU.

The departure of the UK has already led to increased destabilisation among remaining EU members which has only been intensified as a result of the problems with distribution of the vaccine. Angela Merkel’s initial, selfless decision to avoid claiming priority on vaccines produced by the partly Berlin funded Pfizer-BioNTech project has led to problems more recently.

The EU is now far behind many other nations having currently only rolled out a total of 10 million doses despite accounting for 27 global nations. This lack of progress was one of the major protagonists in a recent move by the bloc that saw export bans on vaccines entering Northern Ireland.

This decision was scrapped after it saw intense condemnation from Dublin, Belfast and London with the Foreign Minister of Ireland stating “The [Northern Ireland] Protocol is not something to be tampered with lightly, it’s an essential, hard-won compromise, protecting peace and trade for many.”

A hierarchical system within the EU has become more evident.

This worrying lack of care over decisions that could reignite tensions between Northern Ireland and Ireland display a severe absence of organisation in Brussels. A hierarchical system within the EU has become more evident as a result of the desperate vaccine situation in countries such as Portugal where the country’s vaccine chief has stated they ‘can’t do more’ due to the EU’s failure to procure jabs.

On the back of these recent signs of panic, reassurance from the European Commission’s Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton, who claimed that there was no question of redistributing patents, has gone at least some way to calming the anxieties of pharmaceutical executives. However, other countries in the EU have provided more mixed messages with Germany’s economy minister Altmaier announcing that if vaccine production targets are not met by pharmaceutical companies, he ‘would be willing to talk about coercive measures’.

One major pitfall is likely to be experienced in the event of IP waivers and compulsory licences which is a result of the rapidly advancing biological sector. This is the fact that mRNA vaccines are incredibly new and complex and compulsory licences only provide companies with the rights to produce the vaccine but not the actual method or transfer of technology.

Times of the greatest need provide the most opportunities for profit with patents on vaccines and PPE becoming standard.

This problem is only intensified by failure of the World Health Organisation to persuade a single patent holding pharmaceutical company to sign up to the COVID-19 technology access pool (C-TAP) which was meant to provide easy access to vital research required for the manufacture of drugs. It is becoming increasingly obvious that times of the greatest need provide the most opportunities for profit with patents on vaccines and PPE becoming standard.

The blocking of production of potentially life-saving technology is unethical as it limits global supply in order to keep prices up. However, the enforced waiving of patents by the EU would set a dangerous precedent and would no doubt lead to disapproval from some of Europe’s most influential organisations.

Image: focusonmore.com via Creative Commons

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