The European Union is willing to discuss a proposal, now backed by US President Joe Biden's administration, to waive intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said on Thursday.
The head of the EU executive said the bloc's vaccination effort was accelerating, with 30 Europeans being inoculated per second, while exporting more than 200 million vaccine doses to the rest of the world - contrasting with limited sharing of vaccines by the United States and Britain.
"The EU is also ready to discuss any proposals that address the crisis in an effective and pragmatic manner," von der Leyen said in a speech to the European University Institute in Florence.
"That's why we are ready to discuss how the US proposal for a waiver on intellectual property protections for Covid-19 vaccines could help achieve that objective."
However, Germany on Thursday voiced opposition to the US call for a patent waiver, saying the protection is not hindering production of the jabs.
"The US suggestion for the lifting of patent protection for Covid-19 vaccines has significant implications for vaccine production as a whole," said a government spokeswoman. "The limiting factors in the production of vaccines are the production capacities and the high quality standards and not patents."
Berlin said the pharmaceutical companies concerned were already working with partners to ramp up manufacturing capacities.
"The protection of intellectual property is a source of innovation and must remain so in the future," added the spokeswoman.
Germany is home to BioNTech, the company which co-developed with Pfizer the first Covid-19 vaccine to be approved for use in the West late last year.
Another German company, Curevac, is in the final stages of its clinical trials and is eyeing EU authorisation for its Covid jabs in the coming weeks.
Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio said Italy supported suspending patents, commenting on his Facebook page that Europe should not miss the opportunity and be courageous.
French President Emmanuel Macron said he was "very much in favour" of opening up intellectual property. However, a French government official said lack of production capacity and upstream components was the problem, not patents.
"I would remind you that it is the United States which has not exported a single dose to other countries and which is now talking about lifting the patents," the official said.
German Health Minister Jens Spahn said earlier Thursday Germany backs "the goal of the US president - supplying the world with vaccines is the only way out of the pandemic."
However, those countries that produce vaccines "must also export them to other countries", Spahn said, pointing to US reticence to allow vaccines to leave its shores.
Sceptics say waiving patents will not boost production
South Africa and India made the initial vaccine waiver proposal at the World Trade Organization (WTO) in October, gathering support from a large number of developing countries that say it is a vital step to make vaccines more widely available.
The World Health Organization said in April that of 700 million vaccines globally administered, only 0.2% had been in low-income countries.
Until now, the EU has been with a group of countries, many of them home to large pharmaceutical companies, including Britain and Switzerland, that have opposed the waiver.
They argue it would undermine incentives for firms who have produced vaccines in record time to do so in a future pandemic. They also say waiving patents would not instantly resolve the problem, with a lack of sufficient manufacturing capacity.
Vaccine-making is also complicated, as evidenced by production problems of AstraZeneca, and would also require a transfer of technology, know-how and personnel.
Von der Leyen said that, in the short run, the EU called upon all vaccine-producing countries to allow exports and to avoid measures that disrupt supply chains.
A Commission spokeswoman said this comment was not aimed at any country in particular.
The United States said on Wednesday it supported the waiver, although trade chief Katherine Tai cautioned that negotiations would take time.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called Biden's move a "monumental moment".
South Africa and India have said they will revise their waiver text ahead of the next WTO meetings on the topic later in May and on June 8-9.
New Zealand has also joined the waiver backers, saying it welcomed the US statement. British trade minister Liz Truss said Britain was working at the WTO to resolve the issue, without mentioning the waiver.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS, AFP)