The US and Germany are at odds on the issue of waivers for patents on Covid-19 vaccines, as Berlin argued that a waiver would not increase production and would inhibit future private sector research.
The disagreement is the first major rift between the two economic powers since Joe Biden took office, and threatens to deadlock discussions at the World Trade Organization (WTO) and sour relations within the G7 group of major industrialised democracies.
Any WTO decision on a waiver would have to be by consensus, so Germany opposition is a major obstacle to intellectual property rights on vaccines being suspended.
The Biden government’s announcement on Wednesday that it would back a waiver on vaccine patents was welcomed by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a step towards greater global equity at a time when poor countries have little access to vaccines and south Asia has been hit by a devastating outbreak. India accounted for 46% of the new Covid-19 cases recorded around the world over the past week, and there are signs the wave is spreading to Nepal, Sri Lanka and other neighbouring states.
But Angela Merkel’s government came out against a waiver on Thursday.
“The US suggestion for the lifting of patent protection for Covid-19 vaccines has significant implications for vaccine production as a whole,” a government spokeswoman said.
“The limiting factors in the production of vaccines are the production capacities and the high-quality standards and not patents,” she added, arguing that the companies were already working with partners to boost manufacturing capacity.
“The protection of intellectual property is a source of innovation and must remain so in the future.”
The US secretary of state, Tony Blinken, said the patent waiver was just one of a variety of means the administration was looking at to intensify the struggle to contain the pandemic.
“The main thing is we have to speed this up,” Blinken told MSNBC during a visit to Ukraine. “On the current trajectory, if we don’t do more, if the entire world doesn’t do more, the world won’t be vaccinated until 2024. We can speed this up and get that done, I think, in a much shorter time. And if we do, we’re all going to be better off.”
Pharmaceutical companies reacted with anger to the US decision, and shares in Chinese and American vaccine manufacturers tumbled. Some countries also expressed private astonishment, with one diplomat accusing the US of grandstanding by offering crowd-pleasing simplistic solutions to long-term problems.
In normal times, patents preserve the profits of the multinational companies that make drugs and vaccines, making it illegal for rivals to turn out cheap copycat versions for up to 20 years. But amid a pandemic in which the WHO says no one is safe until everyone is safe, campaigners say there is a powerful moral case for ditching them.
The Biden announcement on waivers has divided the European Union. Emmanuel Macron said he was “absolutely in favour” of the move, in marked a shift for France, which had previously argued that a patent waiver would discourage innovation.
The head of the European commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said the bloc was open to debate. She pointed out that the EU’s vaccination effort was accelerating, with 30 Europeans vaccinated each second, while exporting more than 200m doses. Von der Leyen said Europe was “also ready to discuss any proposals that address the crisis in an effective and pragmatic manner”.
“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,” she said.
The head of the panel reviewing the WHO’s handling of the pandemic, Helen Clark, the former New Zealand prime minister, earlier called on countries that have obstructed the temporary suspension of intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines, such as the UK, Switzerland and EU states, to follow the US lead and back the initiative.
She described the Biden administration’s announcement as a game-changer and said pharmaceutical companies that had received billions in public money now needed to spread knowledge to scale up vaccine production.
“When the US moves it is such a powerful signal,” Clark told the BBC. “One would expect the UK, the EU and Switzerland and others that have been obstructing the discussion on the waiver need to say: ‘Yes, we are prepared to negotiate.’”
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex entered the debate on Thursday, calling on Covid vaccine manufacturers to act with “responsibility and leadership” and increase their allocation of doses distributed to poorer parts of the world.
Harry and Meghan have written an open letter to the chief executives of pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca urging them to redouble their support for the UN-sponsored Covax programme.